Rianne Chavez had to start a new bartering game with her 6-year-old daughter last week: if she does her school work for 20 minutes then she can try to get just 20 minutes of paperwork done from home.

Chavez owns a massage therapy practice in Wichita, and when USD 259 sent elementary students home to remote learning last week, she had to figure out how to run her business and teach her child from home at the same time.

“The expectation is that you’re home with your kid,” she said.

Elementary-aged children in USD 259 began virtual learning last Wednesday after the Wichita school board voted Nov. 30 to send them home amid rising COVID-19 cases. Working parents scrambled to find child care options across the city or decide if someone will stay home with the kids.

The shift could have a strong impact on working mothers’ careers and personal finances. While some parents can stay home to supervise young children learning online, others must work in person. Even staying home can mean missing out on valuable work time.

The issue affects all working parents and guardians, but could be particularly stark for women in the workplace. While remote learning was largely in effect in March and April, mothers’ work hours fell four to five times as much as fathers’, according to a study from Washington University in St. Louis and other universities.

While some women see an impact on their working hours, others might leave the workforce entirely. Among people not working in April and May due to COVID-19, more than 16% of women reported it was because they had to care for children not in school or day care, compared to less than 5% of men, according to Census Household Pulse Survey responses analyzed by Syracuse University.

Some Wichita parents chose at the beginning of the semester to have their students in remote school. However, spots were limited and most elementary students have been in-person in Wichita since the academic year began. For these families, last week marked the first foray into virtual learning since the spring, when Gov. Laura Kelly closed schools and there was little preparation.

For some working mothers like Chavez, being present for a child in remote school can have a direct impact on her income. While she can do some work from home, most must be in-person, and she can’t take her daughter to work.

“People don’t want a massage with a kid sitting in the room,” Chavez said.

The setup isn’t working well for Chavez and her daughter. She primarily stays home to help her with school and get done what little work she can do remotely. She must come up with another solution when she needs to leave the house for work.

At a time when high-contact services like massage therapy are already suffering in the pandemic, Chavez said she can’t afford a nanny, tutor or child care to watch over her daughter.

‘It’s a bigger issue’ when deciding who will stay home

Andrea Hattan is the founder of The Hive, a coworking space and networking community for Wichita women in business. She’s familiar with the challenges women face in the workforce and the reasons they might take time off work to help children at home.

Working women often step back from a job when they think about starting a family, Hattan said.

“Because women might take off work when they have children, their partner will end up making more money than them if they’re in the workforce continually,” Hattan said.

When it comes time to make a decision about who should stay home with the children during virtual education, a family might think logically and cut the job that doesn’t make as much money.

“That’s almost always going to be the woman,” Hattan said. “Because of the sacrifice she’s made, she’s already going to be at a disadvantage.”

Hattan has a 5-year-old daughter in remote learning in the Maize school district. She made the decision to put her child in day care as a way of investing in her career.

“I don’t think people are doing it for a sexist reason,” Hattan said of women staying home. “Most of the men and partners I know, whether or not they’re men, are super supportive and encouraging. They’re just thinking logically, who makes more money? So it’s a bigger issue.”

Andrea Hattan owns The Hive, a women-focused coworking space and networking community in Wichita. Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

Working mothers search for consistency

Sarah Wayne-Wright was just beginning to get into a rhythm with her two children learning remotely in the Mulvane school district. This week, her two stepkids in the Derby district joined them for virtual education. In co-parenting relationships, students moving between different homes and school schedules could cause other distractions from work.

The accounting firm Wayne-Wright owns is gearing up for the busiest season of the year. While she’s able to work from home, she faces constant distractions that pull her away from work. Sometimes the kids need help. Other times, they float across the back of her Zoom call.

“In order to get more than 30 minutes of consistent work time, I think I’d probably have to go stay in a hotel,” Wayne-Wright said.

Wayne-Wright said she has a supportive husband, but he works out of state during the pandemic and isn’t able to help out at home in the same way. She hired a tutor for 20 hours a week to make remote work and school more bearable. With two more kids at home, she might have to bring that tutor on for extra hours.

She said she’s lucky she can afford the added expense.

“I feel like it’s been assumed the women or moms in these kids’ lives are automatically going to take on all this extra responsibility,” Wayne-Wright said. “Just because I work from home doesn’t make my work any less important than anyone else’s.”

Lindsey Santellan said she converted the play room in her basement to a virtual learning center for her daughter, 10, and stepdaughter, 7. Both attend Kensler Elementary School in Wichita.

She chose Wichita’s remote option for the kids at the beginning of the school year, so she’s been dealing with the small distractions since September. It was more difficult early on, but as the children try to settle into a routine, it’s grown easier.

Santellan knows that facilitating the young kids’ education takes time and attention away from her business. She owns a private practice in therapy and needs silence if clients visit her home.

Her advice to parents new to remote school: consistency, structure and time to take care of yourself.

Consistency is one thing Prism Carnal is searching for now as her two children, in kindergarten and second grade, switched to remote education in USD 259 last week. Carnal is an alternative education teacher in Butler County and has shifted to working from home, too.

At first, Carnal thought she could handle working remotely herself while supervising the kids’ schooling. She learned quickly it wasn’t going to be easy.

“The first two days were a mess, I had to take personal time off work,” she said. “But the option for me is that I hope to juggle both.”

If she exhausts sick leave and the students she teaches don’t return to the classroom, she said she would consider a leave of absence or temporary time off from her work, even if it’s unpaid.

Carnal feels secure in her career and workplace and knows she can make the tough decision if she needs to, adding that her children and their education are a priority. But she knows not every woman is in the same situation.

Hattan encourages working mothers who can afford it to think of day care as an investment in their careers and family.

“Until we shift our mindset that a woman’s career is equally important as her partner’s career, her business is equally worth investing in, it’s not gonna matter how many resources we give women,” Hattan said.

Lindsey Santellan converted the play room in her basement into a virtual learning center for her 7-year-old step-daughter Adelyn Hill, left and 10-year-old daughter Elena Santellan, right. Both attend Kensler Elementary School in Wichita. (December 4, 2020) Jaime Green The Wichita Eagle

Without child care, women say, ‘We’re supposed to … just do it’

Sedgwick County commissioners last week allocated up to $2 million in federal funding to help school districts provide child care or supervision for students learning virtually. The money is meant for all public school districts in the county, not Wichita alone.

“We all know that women are gonna bear the brunt of this,” Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse said at the meeting when funding was approved. “They are going to be the ones staying at home with their children, they are going to be the ones that are going to step out of the workforce and lose the progress that they’ve made thus far.”

Cruse experiences the issue herself, she told The Eagle, with a sixth-grader in remote school in her basement. She’s able to work from home often but knows many cannot, and also pointed out that some can’t afford the remote learning supervision programs or day care in the community.

Chavez is well aware that not every woman or family entered remote school from the same financial standpoint. She relocated to Wichita two years ago after she was displaced by Hurricane Michael in Florida. She hasn’t been able to rebuild her savings since then.

She received unemployment early on in the pandemic, including the additional $600 from the CARES Act. Such aid has since expired. The pandemic and remote school will have long-term effects on both her business and personal life, she said.

“Looking at home ownership, it’s not even months away now, it’s years away,” she said.

It could take a decade for her business to recover financially, Chavez believes. The longer the pandemic hammers on and the more cases rise, the more difficult it becomes for her to recover at all.

Now, she feels lucky if she can work a full two days a week while her daughter learns from home.

“Unfortunately, the burden is being placed disproportionately on women and socio-economically poorer women, and yet we’re supposed to get up by our bootstraps and just do it,” Chavez said.

What would be most helpful to Chavez and other women in the workforce, she said, is for the community to take the pandemic seriously by wearing their masks and maintaining physical distance. Coronavirus safety precautions could help keep her daughter in school and support small businesses like her own.

“There’s an emotional toll too,” Chavez said. “I talk to moms who aren’t feeling adequate or like it’s enough, and it’s a completely valid feeling. We shouldn’t be expected to feel all of it.”

Where to find help

Sedgwick County Zoo Remote Learning Lab: Provides a safe space for children in first through sixth grade to participate in remote learning. The program is free of cost and the zoo will give preference to children of essential workers. Visit scz.org/remote-learning-lab or call 316-266-8213. Space is currently filled up, but you can call to be placed on the waiting list.

Strategic Workspace Learning Center: Offers large event space where school-aged children can do remote school with supervision. Visit strategicworkspace.com/learning, call 316-683-3021 or email [email protected].

Carousel Skate Center online learning: Offers a supervised learning environment for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. Registration is $115 per student. Call 316-942-4505.

Lighthouse Tutoring: Offers supervised remote learning. Call 316-250-6380 or email [email protected].

Boys & Girls Club of South Central Kansas: Offers an Elementary Learning Academy where students can learn in a socially-distanced environment. Due to limited staffing, only current members can enroll. The Teen Learning Academy serves middle and high school students. Call 316-201-1890.

Do you know of a supervised remote learning program for school-aged children in Wichita? Email [email protected] to be added to the list.

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Megan Stringer reports for The Wichita Eagle, where she focuses on issues facing the working class, labor and employment. She joined The Eagle in June 2020 as a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Previously, Stringer covered business and economic development for the USA Today Network-Wisconsin, where her stories touched on everything from retail to manufacturing and health care.

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