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Opinion | In the Omicron Surge, I See Signs of Despair From Parents of Kids Under 5

I’ve heard from many parents that their children who go to day care frequently have had to quarantine for stretches of 10 to 14 days as a result of Covid exposures. For hourly workers and single parents especially, this is untenable, and can even lead to financial catastrophe — you still have to pay for day care, even if your kid isn’t attending, and you won’t get paid if you can’t work. Many child care facilities are in a bind as well: They’ve struggled to stay open during the pandemic, and the need for care outstrips availability.

Tiara Johnson, who works with special needs children at an early childhood education center in New York City and is a single mother of a 2-year-old son, experiences both sides of this bind. If enough parents take their children out of the center where she works because of the Covid surge, she explained, it could lose funding and be at risk of shutting down. Meanwhile, as of my conversation with her last Wednesday, the day care where she sends her son had not yet reopened after the Christmas break. “Right now I’m in search of another day care that is open and close to home, because his day care closed due to Covid and I have to worry about paying it, and I’m not being paid while I’m out,” she said. “You have to think about the parents as well, because if we don’t have work, we can’t provide.”

She has to worry about her son’s health, and also the health and daily routines of the children she cares for. They thrive on having a set schedule, she said, and the latest pandemic surge has been a huge disruption for her, her son, the kids and their parents.

Lauren Smith, who works in public relations for a health care company in Washington, D.C., and is a divorced mom of twin 2-year-olds, said that while some employers are trying to accommodate employees, there are limits. “We’re now two years into this, and their patience and flexibility is tried. They can’t bend over backward when employees continue to ask for more understanding,” she said of what she’s seeing in her own work situation and those of her friends. This puts employees in a tough spot, though she acknowledges that some employers are in a tough spot, too: Businesses can’t give endless slack and still deliver results. When we spoke, her sons’ day care had shut down for the week because of staffing issues, and she was only able to get her work done because her ex-husband took vacation from his job to watch the children.

Over and over, parents tell me they feel that children’s needs haven’t been prioritized during the pandemic, that their own health and well-being as parents hasn’t been given enough consideration, and that in many instances they’ve been left with no good options for safe school or child care. While some parents think that continuing with in-person school or day care is the most important thing for their children and others say staying at home — and hopefully Covid-free — is their priority, almost no one felt that the country had put kids first when making policy decisions. Repeatedly, I heard about how hard PCR testing is to come by, and the parents who could get PCRs told me about delayed results keeping them from work and their kids from schools. A set of two rapid tests is currently running them (at least) around $20, and equipping children in quality masks is expensive.

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