Here's what parents need to know before taking time off work to deal with remote school

by Hanna Horvath
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Here's what parents need to know before taking time off work to deal with remote school

Updated November 11, 2020:

With many daycares and schools still partially or completely closed, many parents are left to juggle work, child care and virtual learning alone. Some have adapted by banding with others to form learning “pods” for their kids. Others have adjusted or decreased their work hours. But that may not be enough flexibility for parents.

One in four working parents have reduced their hours because of the pandemic, and 15% have quit, according to a recent survey of 2,500 parents by career website FlexJobs. Of those that quit, almost 40% don’t plan to return.

“I’m seeing parents whose schools are either completely online or partly online, and their kids have become homeschoolers overnight,” said Justin Goodbread, certified financial planner and CEO of Heritage Investors. “Many parents aren’t equipped for this. Employers are doing everything they can, but it may not be enough.”

Parents — especially mothers — are either taking a leave of absence or exiting the workforce altogether. One in four women are considering leaving their jobs or moving to less demanding roles, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Company and women's advocacy organization LeanIn.org.

A leave of absence isn’t an extended vacation. It typically involves reduced or no pay, and there may not be guaranteed employment afterwards. If you or your partner are considering taking a break, here’s what you need to know.

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‘I had no other choice’

Julie Kramer wanted to continue teaching at her local private elementary school in Roswell, Georgia. Her 9-year-old son, who has a learning disability, returned to in-person classes, but her twin daughters, both 8, did not.

“It was an unmitigated disaster,” the 49-year-old mother said. “They were expected to sit for hours in front of a computer. And the amount of extra work they asked of parents was ridiculous.”

Kramer considered sending her daughters to the private school where she worked, which had in-person classes, but the school wasn’t offering financial aid for children of teachers. She also thought about hosting a pod at the school, pooling together with other families to allow their children to learn together in a small classroom setting. But the administration wasn’t willing to take on the added liability. Kramer’s husband worked full-time at a marketing and recruiting company and went into the office. She realized she would have to quit her job or pay for additional child care.

“I was really left with one option,” she said. “Ultimately if I had to send my daughters somewhere else all day, every day, it was going to cost more than me just taking the cut.”

Kramer filed to take medical leave via the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides two weeks of emergency paid sick leave for working parents of children 14 and under, whose school is partially or fully online. Parents may also qualify for an additional 10 weeks paid leave, for two-thirds of their pay capped at $200 per day.

She spent the summer and the first couple of months of the school year, which began in mid-August, supervising her daughters’ virtual lessons. But as her 10 weeks run out, she is facing the reality of being permanently out of work. She said her family has had to cut back financially.

“They may terminate my contract,” she said. “I should be more concerned, I guess. But I know of so many places that have lost teachers. I'm confident I could find a job or be a substitute. I’m just trying to take everything one step at a time.”

Stephanie Sicore is another teacher forced to choose between her children and her students. Her family normally splits their time between their boat docked outside San Francisco and their home in Waxahachie, Texas. But when lockdowns began, she, her husband and three of her four kids, aged 18, 15 and 9, went west. Her youngest son, 6, stayed in Texas with his grandparents.

Two of her kids are learning remotely. Her husband, an engineering manager at a cryptocurrency startup, works remotely. It’s a full boat.

“Wi-Fi has been our biggest concern,” Sicore said. “We’ve been using the hotspot on our phones to get service.”

The 48-year-old art teacher took a semester off her job to assist with her children’s schooling. Her school had opted for online classes and she thought virtual teaching would be too difficult. While her plan is to return in January, she isn’t sure whether she’ll follow through.

“There are pros and cons and I do try to look on the bright side, but I like having my own paycheck and not depending on my husband’s. It’s an emotional thing for me,” she said. “I just miss working badly.”

Should you take a leave of absence?

Here are some major considerations to take if you’re considering taking time off:

  • Evaluate your emergency fund. This includes your investments or other liquid assets. Workers can borrow up to $100,000 from their retirement plans penalty-free, via the coronavirus aid bill. But this should be seen as a last resort, especially if you don’t have a guaranteed stream of income at some point in the future.
  • Have a solid budget in place. Consider new expenses or ones you may be able to cut once you stop working, like commuting costs. If your leave is happening sometime in the future, plan to save as much as possible before you stop working, said Goodbread, the financial adviser.
  • Don’t forget about long-term costs. Workers lose more than just their salary when they take a break: According to a calculator from the Center for American Progress, a 35-year-old woman earning $75,000 who takes just one year off loses $172,500 in lifetime pay, including almost $54,000 in lost wage growth and $43,700 in lost retirement benefits. Quitting your job means losing retirement plan contributions and benefits, which could include disability, life and health insurance. Goodbread recommends performing a cost-benefit analysis, taking into consideration your longer-term money goals, like college funding and retirement, before taking the time.

Taking time off work

Contact your employer’s human resources department to learn about leave policies. Some employers may offer flexible working options, including working part-time or working remotely, or even make an unsecured promise to hire you back at a later date, said Jeffrey Kopp, partner and litigation attorney with Foley & Lardner, focused on labor and employment cases.

“We are getting to the point where businesses are trying to be as accommodating as possible,” said Kopp. “But it’s tough on both sides. These businesses are struggling and may need employees to keep working.”

Since March, parents have filed dozens of lawsuits accusing employers of illegally denying workers parental leave.

Parents like Sicore are hopeful schools will reopen for the spring semester, but Goodbread cautions his clients to be prepared for the long haul.

“The time frame is unknown. All we can control is what we can control,” he said. “Consider all possibilities, including that your income may never return.”

As virtual learning stretches on, more parents will have to make the tough decision of whether to take time off work. They must weigh the importance of being with their families in a time of uncertainty against a loss of income.

So far, Kramer’s kids have enjoyed the time they get to spend with her, she said. They’ve tried new activities, like painting and board games. They’ve begun raising chickens: “So far they’re freeloaders. They haven’t laid any eggs yet.” And for her daughter’s birthday in August, Kramer hosted a drive-by party and had each kid take turns hitting a coronavirus-shaped pinata, sanitizing the bat after each use.

“We’ve gotten to spend so much more time together,” she said. “It’s just been one big lesson, that sometimes there are just disappointments in life. Whenever something happens, like a technical glitch or bad news, you just have to kind of reset and say, ‘OK.’”

Here are some additional tips for parenting during coronavirus crisis.

Image: Nastia Kobzarenko