Newsletter: The unique challenges faced by families with young children during a pandemic
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Aug. 14, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.
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Like many people, my colleague Sonja Sharp has seen her job description drastically shift since the pandemic hit.
Up until March, she had been our Westside reporter, covering everything from Silicon Beach elites seeking out their pilot’s licenses to the “Tactical Rabbi” who helps synagogues defend against anti-Semitic violence, and the lunch truck provider feeding the construction workers behind Bel-Air’s mega-mansion boom.
But in recent months, Sonja has carved out a new niche at the paper, focusing on the particular issues faced by families with young children during a pandemic, and the infrastructure that supports them. Her work has focused on child-care struggles, preschools and day care.
[See also: “Got kids under 5? Try these coronavirus-quarantine school resources for parents” in the Los Angeles Times]
She has reported on how hundreds of large preschools and day-care centers closed amid stay-at-home orders, and the unique challenges at the facilities that stayed open. She delved into why the pandemic has led to a diaper shortage for many low-income families, and examined how day camps — long a lifeline for working parents — struggled to adapt to new rules. Her most recent story looked at why many of California’s poorest and neediest children are stuck at home, waiting for public preschools to reopen or offer distance learning, even as many private preschools prepare to reopen for the school year.
I spoke with Sonja about her new beat, and how her own role as a working parent figures into her reporting.
“Prior to the pandemic — in my experience and most people’s experience that I know — child-care was this thing that you didn’t talk about, right?” Sonja explained. “You dealt with it on your own, and you just gritted your teeth until your kid would be old enough for public school, when you would kind of be on the same page with everybody else.”
What’s different now (aside from everything) is that the occasional crises of managing everyday child-care have become an unyielding, universal constant for working parents, with every existing issue magnified tenfold.
“All of a sudden, everybody’s looking at each other, saying ‘What are we all going to do now?’” Here’s the rest of our conversation, edited for length.
How did these topics evolve into your new beat?
What very quickly became clear, is that 0-5 is an entirely different realm from K-12 education. We think of them as maybe being on a continuum. But legally speaking, from a bureaucratic perspective, they’re totally separate. Day care and preschool are classed as essential. It’s really important to emphasize that, because I think a lot of people who are not immersed in it don’t realize that.
We have a phenomenal education team at The Times, but no one had any expertise on preschool and day care, so I started to pick up some of that. I did a story about the crisis in day care that then led to a story about diaper need, which is something that had existed for a long time, but suddenly was so much more acute than it had ever been.
What do you mean by more acute?
Almost everything that is happening in the realm of preschool, day care, child care — all of that existed before. And all the inequities that we’re seeing existed before. It has always been really difficult, frustrating, complicated and expensive to have childcare. And it has always been geometrically more difficult, frustrating and complicated to do that if you’re poor.
And that’s the same if you’re looking for diapers, or if you are trying to get your kid into preschool. It’s always been true. It’s just more acute than it’s ever been.
What are the biggest issues right now around day care from the provider side?
From the provider side, issue No. 1 is that this has long been a really low-paid career, even when compared with public schoolteachers. Day-care providers and preschool teachers are much more often paid a working-poverty wage. Now those same workers are being asked to do hours more of cleaning, and to come up with sanitation and social distancing supplies when they don’t have any special access to these things.
A very significant portion of our child care is home-based care in family child-care homes. Especially during the pandemic, that’s most of what’s remained open. So, you’re talking about a woman, generally a woman of color, who is running a preschool out of her home. And a lot of the women are older. Immediately, there was the fear that they might be bringing the virus into their home. And their margins were already so slim that if people pulled their kids — either for financial reasons or because they didn’t feel comfortable bringing them — that was a really big hit that a lot of providers couldn’t absorb.
[See also: “Union vote highlights coronavirus crisis for California’s home day-care providers” in the Los Angeles Times]
And when we talk about the programs that have been set up for the children of essential workers, those programs have largely just used the existing voucher system that was for low-income parents to be able to access child care. It just converted a portion of the voucher system to be for essential workers. It’s by and large a good system, but it has produced a burden where people who were predominantly caring for, say, 4-year-olds now have a bunch of 8- and 10-year-olds that they’re expected to help with their Zoom classes or keep occupied. It’s a really different task, and they’re not necessarily being compensated differently or given any other tools to do that task.
Have a story idea for Sonja? Contact her here.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
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A generation left behind? A Los Angeles Times survey of 45 Southern California school districts found profound differences in distance learning among children attending school districts in high-poverty communities and those in more affluent ones. These inequities threaten to exacerbate wide and persistent disparities in public education that shortchange students of color and those from low-income families, resulting in potentially lasting harm to a generation of children. Los Angeles Times
[See also: “Back to school in a pandemic: Resources and news for parents” in the Los Angeles Times]
Six weeks after California began re-closing swaths of the economy, there is cautious optimism that coronavirus transmission is heading downward. If it stays that way, the state may be on the cusp of curbing its second surge of the pandemic. Los Angeles Times
Dodger Stadium will be a polling place for the November election, partnering with LeBron James’ More Than a Vote coalition to become the first MLB team to make its stadium available as a voting site. Los Angeles Times
Hollywood’s entertainment industry unions have a whiteness problem. While campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite have cast a critical light on how Hollywood has overlooked the work of actors or directors of color, activists say significant disparities remain “below the line,” among the crews who staff film, television and theater productions. Los Angeles Times
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A poem to start your Friday: “Prayer” by Galway Kinnell. Poets.org
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Today’s California memory comes from Lisa Mirisola:
Newspapers and television warned us to leave town or face complete freeway gridlock, even though Los Angeles prohibited daytime truck deliveries. The 1984 Olympics were coming! As an undergraduate student at UCLA, I needed a summer job to pay rent. So, I worked housekeeping in the dorms turned into athlete housing. I cleaned rooms and made beds for incredibly tall female Yugoslavian volleyball and basketball players, then spent my breaks watching Olympic tennis matches from a hallway window.
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