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What Another Round of School Closures Means to Working Mothers
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What Another Round of School Closures Means to Working Mothers

The balance of career and family has never felt more daunting.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

(Bellmon1/Flickr Commons)
(Bellmon1/Flickr Commons)

Sarah Lev, a 27-year-old mother of two living in Rockland County in the heart of a Covid-19 “red zone,” has turned down four job offers over the last few weeks because of lack of reliable school options for her children.

“It’s been devastating,” said Lev, who worked as an ultrasound technician before the coronavirus pandemic. “As a professional, I so badly want to get back to doing what I love. And as an essential healthcare worker now is the time I want to be helping people more than ever.”

But with school closures in her neighborhood extended through the end of October, and no certainty as to what will follow given the 5.1 percent positivity rate in her Zip code, according to data published by Governor Andrew Cuomo, she has resigned herself to the unfamiliar life of a stay at home parent.

“We’re in limbo,” she said, managing to fit in our phone conversation before putting one of her children down for a nap. “Now, when I see an email from my daughter’s school in my inbox, my heart drops.”

I ended my first few days of the Sukkot holiday to the news that Mayor de Blasio would be re-imposing a Covid-19 lockdown in nine New York City Zip codes in Brooklyn and Queens. My husband read down the list of Zip codes in a somber voice, and my mind skipped to reciting the plagues at the Passover seder while rhythmically removing drops of wine from our glasses. Blood. Frogs. Lice.

Thankfully, our Zip code, sandwiched between red zones, was spared for the moment. But parents in other areas — and mainly mothers, according to the limited anecdotal data I collected while reporting this article — are rerouting, rearranging and, in many cases, canceling professional undertakings as the reality of this school year begins to unfold.

Children head to school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Sept. 23, 2020. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson/JTA)

Even before the pandemic,  the Labor Department reported that married mothers do almost double the amount of housework and parenting as married fathers. A report earlier this month found that women were four times more likely than men to leave the workforce in September.

“This is much worse than the first time around because now we know what we’re heading into,” said Kaitlyn Schlusselberg, a working mom of two living in Hewlett. Last week, she received word that her son’s Jewish day school, which had opened for about a week and half before Labor Day before being shuttered by the state after positive Covid-19 cases began to surge, was among the Zip codes affected by De Blasio’s  lockdown measures.

Schlusselberg works as a residential mortgage underwriter, a job that allowed her flexibility to work remotely in the past. But with kids at home, “work from home” means something totally different.

“This is not working from home — this is hell,” she said, recalling sharing a makeshift office space with her husband for several months over the spring and summer while her two small children vied for her attention. “I have no clue what I’m going to do in the coming months,” she said. “It is just going to be a free-for-all.”

“Working parents affected by the most recent shutdowns — how are you handling it?” I posted in several parenting Facebook groups shortly after word of the new lockdowns reached me. The responses poured in, from comical — “Till 4 – coffee, after 4 – alcohol” — to despondent. “This is really my breaking point,” wrote one mother of three in Far Rockaway, of the neighborhoods affected by the new lockdown.

My plan was to be working full-time — I am not stay-at-home-mom material.

Ruthie Abramowitz, a dentist, mother of three and recent Brooklyn fugitive now living in Highland Park, NJ, has cut her working hours in half because of school closures. (Though not mandated by the state, the Jewish day school where she sends her children preemptively closed for two weeks following the Sukkot holiday as a preventative measure.)

“My plan was to be working full-time — I am not stay-at-home-mom material,” said Abramowitz, who was working in a Brooklyn dental health clinic before the virus’ first outbreak in March. But as the reality of repeated school closures came into sharp focus in September, when her 4-year-old was first placed in quarantine because his teacher had tested positive for Covid-19, she began to curb her professional goals for the year.

“It would almost be easier to know that school will not be available for the next few months, rather than these week-by-week updates,” she said. “Maybe then I could try and make a plan. But planning for childcare is not really a thing anymore.”

For children, being physically absent from school comes along with serious health, social and educational risks; the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement over the summer urging that students be physically present in school as much as possible come the school year.

As parents, we face some of the same risks.

“Allowing workplaces to reopen while schools, camps and day cares remain closed tells a generation of working parents that it’s fine if they lose their jobs, insurance and livelihoods in the process,” wrote Deb Perelman in an essay for The New York Times that went viral over the summer. “It’s outrageous, and I fear if we don’t make the loudest amount of noise possible over this, we will be erased from the economy.

With Jewish schools closed last week for the Sukkot holiday, I was tasked with keeping up a front of normalcy and lightheartedness for my own family, while calculating the impossible equation of how this is all going to work.

Chol HaMoed, the Hebrew phrase meaning “weekdays [of] the festival,” refers to the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot. It is traditional for families to go on trips and outings to celebrate the time. This year, the balance of work and family, never easy, felt especially unwieldy, as I watched my 4-year-old feed an unimpressed alpaca while I tried to keep up with Brooklyn protests of Covid restrictions culminating in the physical attack of a Jewish journalist.

As Facebook messages and comments from parents in similar positions multiplied and my twin daughters took terms screaming from one floor down, I realized that reporting about the stories of others could not remove me from the grip of this current reality.

Chalk this article up to one more broken barrier in the rapidly eroding division between personal and professional, as we continue to peer into the green eyes of our computer cameras with piles of laundry and unmade beds in the background. Maybe the walls we built in the before times between family and work were made of smoke all along.

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