‘Hard on my family’: Parents across Pa. scramble due to coronavirus school closures

Schools in the state will close for two weeks, leaving parents with the daunting task of keeping up at work while scrambling to arrange care for their children.

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Lakeiya Johnson got to sleep in a little Friday morning, but she’s not happy about it.

Last month, she took a big step toward stabilizing her life — starting a new job, her first in five years. The single mom had been sidelined by medical problems stemming from a brain aneurysm, and her full-time, $13-an-hour call center position promised the ability to give her three school-age children a better life

But Friday morning, Johnson, 41, was at home in Norristown with her kids, and her future employment was suddenly not so clear.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s order Thursday to shut all Montgomery County public schools for the next two weeks in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus means she likely won’t be back at work soon.

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“We were barely making ends meet with the job,” Johnson said during an interview at her home. “Now, to be out of work for 14 days, or however many days — it’s going to be hard on my family.”

On Friday afternoon, Wolf announced that schools statewide would follow Montgomery County’s lead, leaving parents across Pennsylvania with the daunting task of keeping up at work while scrambling to arrange care for their children.

State officials in Maryland, Michigan, West Virginia, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have also announced that schools will be closed for several weeks due to coronavirus concerns.

Montgomery County was first targeted by Wolf because, as of Friday afternoon, it has the most diagnosed cases of coronavirus, with 18 of Pennsylvania’s 41 cases. The Wolf administration also asked people in Montco to refrain from nonessential travel and recommended that “nonessential” retail facilities close.

Offices along Main Street in Norristown, part of Montgomery County in Pennsylvania, closed due to the COVID-19 virus. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Very difficult’

Across Montgomery County Friday morning, parents attempted to figure out how to handle the new guidelines. Pottstown resident Angela Kearney, 50, said she doesn’t have the financial means to take time off from her job as a paralegal, and her employer isn’t offering a work-from-home option. Kearney said she’s hoping to organize a group of friends who can take shifts minding their children, including her eighth grade son and fourth grade daughter.

“This was literally a lunchtime find,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult for us.”

Maricela Guzman, 32, is a case manager at Pottstown’s ACLAMO Family Center, a social service agency serving the community’s significant Latinx population. She said she feels lucky that she’ll be able to work from home while her son is out of school, but she’s worried about not being able to meet with her Latinx clients during this period of health restrictions.

“We want to make ourselves available, because we know a lot of the [coronavirus outbreak] information won’t be available to Spanish-speakers.”

Lakeyia Jonson (second from left) is a working mom who’s staying home with her kids amid the corona virus outbreak in Montgomery County. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

If Lakeyia Johnson’s household is any indication, Montgomery County’s school-age kids are not nearly as concerned about the prospect of two weeks off from school as their parents.

Johnson’s daughter, Amanda Jones, 14, sent her mom an email Thursday, shortly after getting the news: “let’s go to cancun round trips like $3 would you rather catch corona on buttonwood or the beach ?” she wrote, referring to their address.

While parents are adapting to having their children home for the next two weeks, Norristown Area School District officials are trying to figure out how to make sure those kids are fed. About 70% of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced meals, according to Superintendent Christopher Dormer. On Thursday night, the district distributed its perishable food to food banks, churches, and soup kitchens across the community, and Dormer said the district is talking to the Montgomery County Department of Public Health about offering a bus service that would drop off food to families over the next two weeks.

“We are trying to come up with the best and most accessible way to get these meals to families,” Dormer said. “Could we drop off a three- or four-day breakfast-lunch package to a family so they can limit their exposure [to coronavirus]?”

According to Wolf, the federal government has cleared Pennsylvania to serve meals to low-income students in “non-congregate settings” while the closures persist. In Philadelphia, officials said the city is working on a plan to staff recreation centers so that families can get meals and child care during the two-week school shutdown.

By mid-morning Friday in Montgomery County, people in Norristown seemed to be heeding calls to practice “social distancing.” Main Street was unusually quiet; the few people out and about moved quickly and kept their heads down. But while Governor Wolf asked for nonessential businesses in the county to close, the half-dozen cafes, convenience stores, and retail businesses Keystone Crossroads visited remained open.

Pauline’s Deli, normally bustling with office workers grabbing lunch or coffee, was completely empty, save for two waitresses and owner Anna Shin. The counter and booths gleamed after a recent wipe-down. Shin, echoing other business owners, said she simply can’t afford to shut down.

“A big company … I think they can survive,” Shin said. “But I don’t know how to survive in this situation.”

Pauline’s Deli owner Anna Shin (left), stands around with waitstaff Amy Gentile (center) and Andrew Stewart (right) in the midst of recommended closures in Montgomery County. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For Lakeyia Johnson, the prospect of two weeks home with her children isn’t just a stress on her finances — it will be a test of her mental health as well. But she’s planning for that. After the news of school closures broke Thursday, Johnson took a trip to the state wine and spirits store.

“I didn’t get a lot of wine — I got one bottle,” she said. “So I get like a sip a day.”

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