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Newsletter: The unique challenges faced by families with young children during a pandemic

Shawn Chou and Jennifer Lee drop off their daughter Samantha Chou, 6, at LA Gymnastics in Culver City
Shawn Chou and Jennifer Lee drop off their daughter Samantha Chou, 6, at LA Gymnastics in Culver City. They were among the thousands of L.A. parents who pinned their hope on summer camps as months of Zoom school drew to a close and work resumed.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Aug. 14, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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.

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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[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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Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

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

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L.A. STORIES

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

Dodger Stadium
Dodger Stadium’s vast footprint will enable social distancing at the voting site, the team said.
(Don Kelsen / 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

Two sisters serving Bali-style coconut rice out of a Glendale driveway are responsible for some of L.A.'s best tropical street food. L.A. Taco

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

President Trump admits to blocking Postal Service funding to undercut voting by mail: Trump said Thursday that he would block a funding boost for the U.S. Postal Service to handle an expected flood of mail-in ballots in coming weeks as part of a White House effort to limit Americans voting by mail, raising the chances of chaos surrounding the election in November. The president claims voting by mail will hurt his reelection chances, arguing that Democrats are more likely to stay home while his supporters vote in person. Los Angeles Times

A $400 unemployment extension is unlikely to arrive soon, if at all. Here’s what you need to know. Los Angeles Times

California will end eviction protections next month unless lawmakers extend them: California will resume eviction and foreclosure proceedings on Sept. 1 unless the state Legislature takes action after the court system’s rule-making body on Thursday voted to end temporary statewide protections for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Los Angeles Times

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CRIME AND COURTS

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has moved to discipline 26 employees for misconduct related to a fight during an off-duty East L.A. station party at which several deputies said they were attacked by tattooed members of the Banditos clique. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Multiple fires are burning in Southern California, including the Lake fire in the Lake Hughes area of northern L.A. County, the Ranch fire in Azusa’s Mountain Cove community and a brush fire in West Covina. Here’s a map of all the active fires in the state. Los Angeles Times

An excessive heat watch has been issued for much of Southern California this weekend, with temperatures forecast that may near record highs throughout the area. Los Angeles Times

And in the Bay Area, the heat wave will be hotter and more wide-ranging than first expected. Lightning strikes and thunderstorms also are possible. Mercury News

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Students are back on campus at a Fresno County private school, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders. The local health department has said it will take action to close the school. Fresno Bee

New policies that change the way Stanford University investigates sexual harassment allegations are drawing heated criticism from the campus community. Proponents say new rules were required to ensure “due process” for both sides in sexual harassment complaints. Critics say the rules will discourage victims from coming forward. San Francisco Chronicle

“It’s like pineapple bombs are falling from the sky.” The backyard presence of a rare Bunya pine tree has become a “literal pain” for a south Sacramento woman, who says she has to wear gloves, shoes and a hard hat nearly every time she walks in her yard because of the tree’s razor-sharp leaves and falling pine cones, which can weigh as much as 15 pounds. The trees can live up to 500 years, and there are only 12 in the greater Sacramento region. ABC 10

A poem to start your Friday: “Prayer” by Galway Kinnell. Poets.org

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 93. San Diego: partly sunny, 80. San Francisco: partly sunny, 82. San Jose: partly sunny, 96. Fresno: sunny, 107. Sacramento: partly sunny, 107. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

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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If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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