When New York City decided to reopen its school system, the nation’s largest, on a part-time basis in September, it set off a new child care crisis that could seriously threaten its ability to restart the local economy and recover from the coronavirus outbreak.
Business and union leaders said the city needed to mount a kind of Marshall Plan-like effort to find child care for many of the system’s 1.1 million students when they are not in classrooms. They said there was no way the economy — from conglomerates in Midtown Manhattan to small businesses in Queens — could fully return to normal if parents had no choice but to stay at home to watch their children.
The concerns reflected a growing recognition across the nation that the reopening of schools is now the linchpin in the broader effort to undo the severe economic damage from the outbreak. New York City alone is facing its worst financial crisis since the 1970s, with an unemployment rate hovering near 20 percent.
“There is no discussion of this right now that’s serious,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, whose members include the city’s biggest private-sector employers. “There is not a serious solution. Which means that people will not be able to go back to work.”
Under the plan announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio this week, classroom attendance would be limited to only one to three days a week in an effort to protect public health. The city’s approach is similar to that being followed by many school districts, which are concerned that crowded schools might intensify the outbreak.
The decisions on school reopenings are also fueling a contentious political debate over whether elected officials, educators and public health experts are moving forward too cautiously, even as the number of virus cases soars in the United States.
President Trump and his aides are putting pressure on state and local officials to bring children back to classrooms full time this fall, saying the fate of the economy depends on it.
“Parents have to get back to the factory,” Alex Azar, the federal health and human services secretary, said this week. “They’ve got to get back to the job site. They have to get back to the office. And part of that is their kids, knowing their kids are taken care of.”
A flurry of recent announcements on school reopenings has left families grappling with the harsh reality that they may not be able to fully return to work until there is a vaccine or effective treatment.
Children in Seattle will likely return to school only one or two days a week, and students in Los Angeles County, home to the country’s second-largest school system, may not be able to return to classrooms at all next month if cases continue to increase in the region.
In New York, Jane Meyer, a mayoral spokeswoman, said that the city had begun reaching out to the business community and that it would announce child care options in the coming weeks.
“We know working families are trying to put the pieces together and make this work, and we are laser-focused on providing solutions,” she said.
The school reopening plan will add to the complexities businesses face in juggling work and child care. Big companies have been scrambling to make workplaces safe and sanitary, but many have said that creating space in their buildings for schoolchildren would raise too many liability issues.
Some employers said they did not expect most parents to return to work without a normal school schedule. Leaders of the city’s big labor unions said many members had been looking after the children of those whose jobs were considered essential. Before many of the others could return to work, union leaders said, they would need safe spaces for their own children.
Steven James, New York City chief executive of the Douglas Elliman real-estate brokerage, said the schools plan would not allow for a normal return for nearly 1,000 employees based at the company’s Midtown office.
“It throws a bit of a wrench in it,” Mr. James said. “It’s not going to be, ‘I’ll drop you off at 8:30 on my way to the office and pick you back up at 3. It won’t be like that.”
While employees who have been working from home during the pandemic might have some flexibility, that is not the case for many low-income families and essential workers.
Unions that represent essential workers say many members face child care difficulties in normal times and now are being forced into an even worse predicament.
“Many of our members live in households where all of the adult members work staggered schedules to deal with child care,” said Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ SEIU, which represents 85,000 building cleaners, security guards, doormen and airport workers in New York.
Public school parents will not learn what days their children can attend school until August, so it will be difficult for working families to let their employers know before late summer when they can show up in person.
Working parents have expressed confusion and anxiety about the prospect of a part-time return to schools without a child care plan.
David Segal, a sanitation worker who lives in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, said he and his wife had been “pulling out our hair trying to figure out child care” for their two young children. His older child was set to start pre-K this fall.
If Mr. Segal’s son can attend school only once or twice a week, his wife, who works in a clothing store, would have to significantly reduce her hours.
“I’m not sure how we will pay the bills,” Mr. Segal said, adding that a private day care could cost more than his wife’s annual income. “It’s insane that no political leaders have any answers for working-class parents.”
Jose Maldonado, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 100, said 15,000 employees in his 18,000-member union were laid off because of the coronavirus and were eager to get back to work.
Many of those members had jobs serving food in cafeterias, delis and airports. Those who have kept working have had laid-off workers care for their children, Mr. Maldonado said.
Mr. Maldonado, who is recovering from Covid-19, has a daughter, Cristina Cerezo, who is a guidance counselor at Public School 333 in the Bronx. Ms. Cerezo said she and some of her students’ parents were wary about the feasibility of the mayor’s plan.
“We’re flying this plane as we build it,” she said.
“There’s a child care crisis coming,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union, which represents about 75,000 classroom teachers.
Thousands of teachers who have spent months juggling remote learning for their students and their own children will now have to figure out how to return to school full time while their children go back only a few days a week.
“Every way that you look at it, it feels impossible” to plan for fall, said Emily James, a mother of two who teaches high school English in Brooklyn.
“The city has to come up with some way to provide child care instead of trying to make everything work through the schools,” Ms. James said, adding that she was nervous about whether teachers would be safe returning to buildings.
Some experts say they worry that the flexibility some companies offered on child care in the spring will wane come fall. This week, a woman in California sued her former employer, claiming she was fired because her young children made noise during calls while she was working at home.
“As we start talking about reopening, there’s almost this compassion fatigue, that I’ve put up with you and your lack of child care long enough,” said Brigid Schulte, who runs the Better Life Lab at New America, a research group.
The city’s employers are also desperate for clarity on school reopening and child care.
Miriam Milord, owner of BCakeNy, a bakery in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, said, “It would be great for employees to have child care.”
This summer, a teenage girl from the neighborhood has been supervising Ms. Milord’s 12-year-old son and a few of her employees’ children at her house while the parents bake and sell cakes.
Ms. Milord said she laid off 10 of her 16 workers, but had brought four of them back. Some are single mothers who would need child care on the days their children are not in the classroom.
“We definitely would like to hire back one or more of them,” Ms. Milord said. “But what’s the plan?”
Ms. Wylde said she had heard suggestions about how the private sector could pitch in to provide space for students when they are not in school, including using empty hotel ballrooms and auditoriums, and even vacant storefronts.
But she said those ideas seemed unrealistic given the huge number of students involved and the potential liabilities. Finding enough space would require a sweeping plan — one, she said, that would rival the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to Western Europe after World War II. Such an endeavor would also dwarf the largely successful effort in 2014 to create space for universal pre-K.
City officials have not yet formally proposed any of these ideas to the business community, she said.
For now, working families are left in limbo, fearful for their own livelihoods and for the city’s future.
Mia Pearlman, a mother of two who lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, lost her income when the pandemic hit. Her family has been living on federal unemployment checks and her husband’s teacher salary, and she does not know what her family will do if the government help dries up.
The mayor’s school plan, she said, “does not accommodate the reality of having kids in New York City.”
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