‘It Is a Nightmare Out Here’: Seattle Parents Struggle to Balance Work and Child Care

First the schools closed, then the babysitter canceled.

Jaime Fitch, 40, a manager at the University of Washington School of Medicine, woke up on Monday to learn that her children’s caretaker — and her family’s best source of backup child care — had some symptoms of Covid-19, but not enough to get tested.

Her mother-in-law, who has babysat in the past, was recently in a car accident and had a broken sternum. And Fitch’s husband, who is the director of marketing and operations at a start-up, needed to work, too.

So they did what a lot of parents are doing during the school closures: multitask, play jiu-jitsu with their schedules and hope for the best.

During conference calls, Fitch breastfeeds her 10-month-old daughter, angling the camera upward or turning it off. Her daughter takes naps on her chest in a carrier while Fitch responds to emails and attends online meetings. Her 4-year-old son watches videos and plays games online. A whiteboard in the kitchen that used to feature recipes now lists the daily meetings she and her husband must attend.

Late last week, Seattle became one of the first major cities to close its public schools because of coronavirus, panicking parents who work outside the home and offering a glimpse of the future for parents who live in other hot spots around the country. Since then, schools in the rest of the state have also closed, and the public schools systems in Los Angeles, Boston and New York City — the nation’s largest — have announced temporary shut downs.

The first known U.S. coronavirus case was detected in Washington State. The virus has spread rapidly there, killing 48 people, more than anywhere else in the country.

Fitch said the child care centers her children attend were closed, just like the public schools, but she and her husband were still responsible for paying $1,800 a month to keep their youngest enrolled in day care. They’re now awaiting word about their 4-year-old’s $1,500 preschool tuition.

“It is a nightmare out here,” Fitch said. “I’m losing sleep, and I’m dreaming about this.”

Denise Juneau, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, said on Friday in a video statement that the district is working on ways to provide child care for health workers and disadvantaged families. In a letter on Friday, the school district urged parents to “please offer help to friends and neighbors.”

To begin filling the gaping need for child care, organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, which offer after school and summer programs, are expanding their hours. Even some of the youngest Seattle residents are pitching in.

“I realized my only problem during break was having nothing to do,” said Josie Droz, 13, a seventh grader at Seattle Public Schools. So she organized a group of about 15 peers to offer babysitting services to parents in need. They named themselves “The Good Kids,” because “I feel like what every parent’s looking for is having a good kid,” she said.

So far she has connected five parents with babysitters, she said. The fees and time allotted to each family will vary.

“If there’s a family who can’t afford to have their kids looked after and might have to quit their job because they need to take care of their kids, we can give them babysitting for free,” she said, adding that her group is willing to travel throughout the Seattle area. “We want to be able to help as many people as possible.”

Members of the community are also offering assistance online. Facebook groups like Seattle Help for Parents & Caregivers During Covid-19 Outbreak and the SPS COVID 19 school closure parent survival page have become virtual gathering places for those affected by the school closures, as well as a way to share resources, including websites offering educational tools.

The state is also mobilizing to help families. Nicole Rose, a director at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families, said in a video statement on Friday that the agency is “actively exploring” different ways to assist families and child care providers during the closures, though the agency did not immediately respond to email or phone inquires about those plans.

The current lack of child care can be especially challenging for single parents and caregivers of children with special needs. Sarah Fitzsimons, 39, a single mother who lives in Burien, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, has started bringing her two youngest children to the small auto body repair shop where she works as an office manager.

The boys, 8 and 10, do schoolwork for a few hours each day that was assigned by their teachers after the closures were announced. Afterward, they play video games like Fortnite and Minecraft. One of her biggest concerns is that business will slow and she will no longer have a job.

“My rent is half of my income,” she said.

Another worry: providing enough food for her sons. Fitzsimons, who relies on free school meals, will soon begin picking up grab-and-go breakfast and lunch bags for the boys at a nearby high school every morning on her way to work.

On top of all this, in April she will be juggling medical appointments for her 8-year-old, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

She has no family nearby. In the past, Fitzsimons relied on UrbanSitter, a website and mobile app that connects parents with babysitters. But now she would need a sitter for at least nine hours a day. “I can’t afford to do that right now,” she said.

Janene Lalonde, 46, who lives in north Seattle, also has a son with special needs: Franklin, 3, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She recently found out that his regular visits with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist have been canceled because of concerns about coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Lalonde, an administrative law judge, is struggling to work from home.

“Franklin is watching ‘Toy Story’ in the other room, so I have probably 90 minutes I can work on stuff,” she said on Monday morning.

When he’s not in front of a screen, Lalonde is “constantly fetching snacks” she said. At this age, she added, “they just need a lot of attention.”

In the past she has relied on her parents or her sister for child care.

“He’s never had a paid babysitter,” she said.

But she’s hesitant to enlist her family’s help now. Her parents are in their 70s, which means they have a greater risk of developing severe symptoms from coronavirus. And her sister is a physician who is not available to help on weekdays.

Some families are fortunate enough to have relatives nearby who can provide additional support. But it’s still difficult.

Caroline Daniel, 36, is a mother of two who is working from home processing claims for injured veterans for the Veterans Benefits Administration. Her children, ages 3 and 6, are no longer in school.

On Friday, Daniel began working from home at 6 a.m. to get a head start. Her husband, a photographer, left for work at 8:30. A few hours later, Daniel drove her children to her sister’s house to play with their cousins. Once there, she worked at her sister’s kitchen table, where her 4-year-old niece sometimes sat on her lap, and in the family room, where she watched the kids play.

“It was chaotic,” she said. “I was able to get enough work done, but it was hard, and I was so exhausted.”

She said it feels sometimes like the world is closing in, and all of the activities her family used to participate in — church, gymnastics, the zoo — are falling away, one by one.

“I feel like I’m at the edge of tears all the time,” she said. “I know this is temporary, but it feels so halting. Like we’re in some weird nightmare where you try to run but can’t move.”

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