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Working Parents, Childcare Workers and Children Are Struggling, How They Are Finding A Way Forward

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Hannah Tufts
Isabelle Heydt and her husband moved to their family's farm in Rappahannock, Virginia, to be closer to family for help with child support for their son Toren.

Juggling work and child care has never been easy, but it’s gotten even more complicated during the coronavirus pandemic. Our child care system is in crisis.

The system was patchwork and threadbare before this year. Working parents in the United States face a lot of pressure. And child care workers are often underpaid, overworked, and undervalued.

In this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia we’ll hear from several people who have had to adjust their lives and work in the midst of the global pandemic.

Single Moms

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Courtesy
Kayla Graham cuddles with her four children.

When the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, state leaders shut down schools, ordered businesses to close and told people to stay home from work unless they were deemed “essential” by the federal government.

This included hygiene production and services such as custodians for essential buildings. It created new challenges for single parents deemed essential, especially when daycares shut down. With virtual learning, more challenges emerged for parents. Jessica Lilly spoke with a few moms coping with this reality to get a sense of what they’re up against.

Relying On Family

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Isabelle Heydt
Isabelle Heydt and her son Toren at their new home. They moved to be closer to family for help with childcare.

“Navigating Child care during a pandemic in rural Appalachia is laughable and heartbreaking, and stress inducing, and scary,” said Isabelle Heydt, who moved from Pendleton County, West Virginia to Rappahannock County, Virginia earlier this year. “It’s hard to find a babysitter, and under these conditions, it’s nearly impossible.”

In Virginia, Heydt teaches school part time and is also taking online classes for a masters degree from Marshall University. “We really have so many unanswered questions, I mean the whole country and world does, about what the next months and years will look like under these new conditions with a pandemic. And the one thing that’s most certain is that I need to be around family, and we need that social support,” Heydt said.

Another young mother, Melissa Ellsworth, also made the decision to move closer to her family during the pandemic.

“We’ve been doing this whole parenthood thing over the course of the pandemic, which has been an adventure, to say the least,” said Ellsworth, who works from home as a lawyer. During the pandemic, she felt uneasy about using a babysitter, so Ellsworth’s mother began driving more than two hours from Shepherdstown, West Virginia to Morgantown almost weekly to assist with child care. This summer, Ellsworth and her husband decided to buy a home closer to her family. “I’m able to work because of the move. I really couldn’t do it without the help of my parents,” said Ellsworth.

Grandparents have always played an important role in Appalachian families. Of course, not everyone is able to rely on family for help. And asking grandparents might mean putting a senior citizen, sometimes with a chronic health condition, at risk of getting the virus. In these times, there are no perfect solutions.

Child Care

Even with all the safety precautions daycares and schools are taking, it’s still possible for kids to get infected. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that more than 1 million kids have tested positive for coronavirus in the U.S. and though children are at a lower risk of developing serious health complications from the virus, it does happen. Children are also thought to be spreaders of the virus, and often don’t show symptoms.

Until the pandemic, Megan Shumaker had help with child care from her parents.

“They watched all of my kids since they were babies,” Shumaker said. “And they sort of said, ‘We can't do it. We're on lockdown.’ My husband and I are in a bit of a pickle, we totally understood, but it was still a little frustrating for us, because we were like, ‘What in the world are we going to do?’”

Shumaker went to part time, working 20 hours a week, which gave her more time for child care. Megan’s three kids go to school in person two days a week, and attend virtual school three days a week at a daycare called Children’s Place.

To remain open, the daycare had to change how it does business overnight. Reporter Kyle Vass spoke with the daycare’s director, to find out how she’s been adapting during the pandemic.

Survey

A few months ago, Inside Appalachia published an online survey to ask child care workers how they are handling all these changes. Some said they are afraid for their health. All of them said they feel underpaid. Child care workers typically make between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.

Several respondents also said they don’t have paid sick leave and those who do said their schools are so understaffed, they don’t feel like they have the option to call in sick if they don’t feel well.

Day care workers aren’t required to get regularly tested for COVID-19, and according to West Virginia health officials, there have been several outbreaks of the virus at day cares already. For these next few months, officials say they expect to see even more, as the number of cases across the country continues to grow.

If you’re a daycare worker in Appalachia, we want to hear from you. Have you come into contact with the virus? If you wake up one morning and have symptoms, like a fever or a sore throat, do you feel able to call in sick?

There is an anonymous survey on our website, and we’d love to hear what your experience has been. There’s also a survey for working parents about the challenges you’re facing.

 

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Kelly Jones and her daughter, June, set out to find brave, creative problem solvers who are supporting their communities in the era of social distancing in their new podcast from Virginia Public Radio.

How Kids Are Coping

Eight-year-old June has been spending a great deal of her time lately helping her mom produce a podcast for Virginia Public Media, called Social Distance Assistance. For an episode called “Youth in the time of Coronavirus” June called some of her best friends, Ellie, Lorna, Amaka, Hazel, and Oliver, to find out how they’ve been coping. She also spoke with her school librarian, Ms. Flowers, about how she’s been helping kids stay excited about reading.

Puppets

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Caitlin Myers
Participants in the the annual Knoxville Pride Parade carry a larger-than-life Dolly Parton puppet down Gay Street.

Throughout history, puppets and marionettes have been used to tell rowdy stories, poke fun at authority figures, and provide entertainment for cheap. Puppetry blurs the line between play and politics, between protests, pageants, and parades — all of which have a storied history in the South. We’ll hear a story from one of our Folkways reporters Katie Myers, on how a group called Cattywampus Puppet Council in Knoxville, Tennessee, Cattywampus Puppet Council is building on that tradition..

Let Us Know

We at Inside Appalachia really care about parenting and childcare, and how people are managing during the pandemic. We’re going to continue to follow this issue, but we need your help to tell the next part of this story. Have you found creative solutions to child care in your community? Where do we go from here? How can we make child care work better?

Please reach out and share your ideas, your experiences, your stories. Email us at InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org or tweet us @In Appalachia.

We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from the Us and Them Podcast and the VPM podcast “Social Distance Assistance,” hosted by Kelly and June Jones, produced by Molly Born.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Kaia Kater, Marisa Anderson and Blue Dot Sessions,

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups.

Kelley Libby edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.