Working parents are key members of the United States workforce

It is likely that schools will be struggling to keep up with this ever-evolving pandemic and fluctuating positivity rates for many months to come. From July to September, there were over 9,000 cases of COVID-19 reported in over 2,000 schools in the U.S. What is becoming very clear is that protocols may need to change from week to week in order to maintain academic standards and safety for all involved. Scheduling will be challenging over the next few months for parents, teachers, and students across the country.

As full-time working physicians, school has just begun, and there have already been several moments where a quick pivot was necessary, impacting our clinical and administrative schedules. It is clear we aren’t alone as we witness many of our colleagues taking to social media, desperately searching for supplemental childcare. To be sure, this is not a situation schools can control – it is just our current reality. This pandemic is a constantly moving target requiring all of us to let go of our rigid schedules and embrace flexibility.

Parents will be stretched thin with scheduling as school districts phase in (or out) of in-person learning versus virtual learning as the year goes on. Even within the same state, school protocols can vary depending on grade level, county, private, parochial, and public systems. Whatever the school, the guidelines will be stringent, and understandably cannot focus on the scheduling needs of working parents – they have enough to worry about.

So how will frontline parents cope? The overall contribution of working parents to the U.S. workforce is not insignificant. In one survey, a staggering 54 percent of working parents would quit their jobs if children did not return to in-person learning.  In 2019, 33.4 million families included children under the age of 18. Over 80 percent of households had one working parent, and in two-parent households, over 64 percent had both parents employed.

With much of the country in phase 4, many employees are back to working on-site and full work weeks. Even for those who can work from home, the ultimate multi-tasking of completing one’s job obligations while ensuring the educational future of one’s children is a struggle. A dilemma naturally arises: stable and reliable employment in an unsteady economy further secures a child’s future, yet that employment is affected by lack of childcare predictability.

It will also become apparent, if not already, that these hurdles will disproportionately affect women – even prior to the pandemic, women spend more hours in caregiving and household tasks and staying at home with sick children. As it is, women are poorly represented in both academic and administrative leadership realms in health care. Already emerging are stories of parents who are quitting or going to part-time status due to work-life struggles. Since the pandemic may well continue into 2021, employers need to look at the big picture –  loss of employees now may have downstream implacable results.

It won’t be possible for parents who are also health care workers or other essential workers to keep up with changes without some concessions and a change of culture from their employers. Leadership at health care institutions, for example, will need to include listening, being understanding of fluctuating scheduling needs, and being transparent about available resources.

Rigid emphasis on location of work completion or the idea of a rigid time clock is not the answer as long as deadlines are met — and needs may change monthly as the pandemic evolves. An employee’s pre-pandemic track record should be considered, as they are likely not their “best self” during these trying times. If productivity measures are in play, it may time to lower those thresholds temporarily.

Standardizing protocols and telehealth access for personal and family sick time based on scientific guidelines may alleviate some anxiety around health concerns.

All of this to say – flexibility is key. Working parents are key members of the United States workforce. In order to circumvent any further augmentation of our country’s unemployment numbers from parents who feel forced to leave the workforce, employers will need to be more flexible than ever before – and the philosophy may need to be: just get the work done however and whenever you can.

Inna Husain is an otolaryngologist. Meeta Shah is an emergency physician.

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