When Erika Lebron found out that Richmond Public Schools would be closed an extra two days this week for employees’ mental health, like many working parents, she needed to figure out child care for her children, and fast.
Fearing that RPS employees are on the “brink of burning out — even leaving,” Superintendent Jason Kamras announced on Oct. 20 that the school system would be closed the entire first week of November, including two days “in the interest” of employees’ mental health.
Richmond schools were already slated to be closed Tuesday for Election Day, as well as Thursday for the Diwali holiday, and no classes were scheduled for Friday because of parent-teacher conferences. Now, schools also will be closed Monday and Wednesday for mental health days.
“I completely understand that teachers need mental health days,” Lebron said via email. “But I think they should add mental health days as days you can use whenever, like sick days and vacation days. Don’t close the whole school down for a week at a time. What a burden that is for working parents! Don’t do that to us! This just isn’t fair at all for working parents, especially single parents out there just scraping by.”
Lebron has a government job and pays for after-care for her three kids, ages 5, 6 and 12. Her 12-year-old can’t be home alone. Luckily, both child care centers she uses will be offering full day care for her children during the first week of November.
“I have to pay extra, but it beats missing a week of work,” she said.
The pandemic has revealed many fractures in the child care sector, which has now reached a full-blown crisis.
While some parents are able to rearrange their schedules or work from home to cover those days off, others aren’t so lucky. Some working parents have to take the entire week off work this week. For hourly workers, that means going a week without pay.
“Richmond Public Schools serve such a high percentage of people living in poverty. These are the last people who can absorb a week without pay,” said Julie Rautio, a lobbyist at Capital Results.
Rautio has been helping a Gilpin Court family navigate social services, after-school, housing and school programs.
The single mom “has an hourly job and has no backup for child care,” she said. “[Over the past year], she has been hit with multiple summer camp and school quarantines during which she has not been paid. This week off will bring her total days missed due to lack of child care to over 40 in 2021! All of them unpaid. That is a huge burden on a very low income family.”
“I’ve called every after care and child care I could think of for my friend,” Rautio said. “They’re all full.”
The YMCA offers after-care for 730 students in Richmond Public Schools. The free program is described by many working parents as a “lifesaver.” The YMCA typically offers full day child care for those students during holidays or school breaks at the school buildings. But because school buildings will be closed this week, the YMCA does not have enough space in its own facilities and will not be able to offer full child care.
All of those families usually served by the YMCA will have to find alternate child care this week.
To get after-care, most parents have to enroll their children for the entire year, which means those slots are already reserved. Drop-in child care is difficult to find.
Seeing the need for child care this week, Julia Mattingly, executive director of Celebrate RVA, decided to open the nonprofit’s Community Center at 908 Oliver Hill Way for five days of free child care.
“We have 15 slots available. We’re prioritizing single-parent households, as that’s the biggest need for child support,” Mattingly said. “It will be a week of joy with no academic component. The children need a break, too.”
Interested parents can find the registration information on Celebrate RVA’s Facebook page.
Celebrate RVA was formed to give disadvantaged children a memorable birthday celebration for free in a safe and fun environment. The nonprofit’s Community Center was set to open in March 2020, but the pandemic didn’t make that possible. In August 2020, the organization pivoted its mission due to the pandemic and child care issues and opened the center to serve 20 kids for virtual learning for the entire school year.
Now that students are back in school, Celebrate RVA’s Community Center is planning its grand opening celebration on Dec. 3 and looking forward to the return of Birthday School.
While working parents are concerned about finding child care, many are in support of the schools’ decision to close for the staff’s mental health, especially those parents who work from home.
“My son is in kindergarten at Westover Hills Elementary School, and while not ideal, if it is in the best interest of teachers to have two mental health days, then I am in full support,” said Kimberly Dickerson, who works from home in communications, via email. “The teachers and staff are working with a population that isn’t currently able to be vaccinated. They are on the front lines caring for and instructing our children. While I may be inconvenienced, I am appreciative of their efforts.”