How working parents are navigating childcare during the coronavirus pandemic

March 20, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC

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As segments of the economy grind to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sian Bumsted’s job has only picked up steam. Working in sales for a major consumer packaged goods company in Toronto, Bumsted says she’s under more pressure than ever—with a 3-year-old at home.

“I have to pretend not to be here,” Bumsted says of working from home with her daughter. “My husband will message me to keep my voice down while I’m on a conference call downstairs.”

Bumsted is one of the millions of working parents whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with necessary social isolation closing schools, day care sites, and workplaces. From the economic pressures of job loss, to the lack of accessible childcare for people still going into work, to the mental and physical toll of around-the-clock childcare responsibilities for those working from home—how to care for kids amid a pandemic is a question every parent is now navigating.

For Bumsted, pressure to keep supply chains intact and store shelves stocked makes work busier than ever; her husband—a community college professor whose school is closed—has taken the lead on childcare.

For other families, the division of labor—and whether it’s even possible to work at anything close to their usual level of output with children home long term—isn’t as cut-and-dry.

Cassie Murdoch, a Brooklyn-based editor for the website Mashable, is home all day with twin 4-year-olds; her husband, a freelancer, is also doing much of the childcare right now, with their usual nanny staying at home because of her immunocompromised son. “Our two-bedroom apartment is closing in on us,” she says. “There’s no time to clean the house or take a shower…How am I going to do the taxes? I have no idea.”

Some families have found creative short-term solutions. Miriam Bloom Williams, Berkeley-based cofounder of the maternity apparel brand Superkin, struck a deal with her neighbors: The two families, who each have a 3-year-old, would agree to isolate from all others outside their households. Then, the two boys could spend mornings together at one house and afternoons at the other, giving the only children some company and the four parents time to work. “We always joked that someday our kids would burrow through the back fence, but we never envisioned the potential for this much closeness,” Williams says.

Parents of older children find their kids need a different kind of support and attention during this crisis. Lareina Yee, McKinsey’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, is the mother of a 17-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a 5-year-old. “My high schooler, he’s worried. The SATs are canceled, college visits are canceled, soccer practice is canceled. Not being able to see their friends is a really big deal. And he and my 13-year-old both have subscriptions to news outlets and are reading some really heavy stuff,” Yee says. “With younger kids it’s more obvious what they need.”

While virtual classes, now being offered in some areas for kids all the way from pre-K up through college, can take up a portion of the day, they’re not a complete solution. Murdoch found that her twins are too young to really tune in for their pre-K’s virtual learning without adult assistance; Yee said her middle schooler finished his virtual classes by lunch.

Companies are trying to adapt to their employees’ new realities. At McKinsey, Yee sent out a note to her staff recommending adjusting working hours to account for kids’ late-afternoon stir-craziness and acknowledging that it’s okay if a 5-year-old walks in during an internal call.

Allyson Downey, founder of the Boulder-based startup Stellar, which helps companies secure early customer reviews for new products, has told her nine employees to use schedule send tools to send emails whenever they have time; client calls still need to happen during normal work hours, she says, but nearly everything else is flexible.

On the first day of fully remote work, all of Stellar’s employees brought their children to their morning video check-in to talk about the new reality of the whole family working from home, and what kids should do if they need something from their mom or dad during the workday. “I know my productivity is radically impacted by this, so I’m assuming it’s the same for everyone else,” says Downey, who has a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old at home.

For many parents, it’s important that their employers acknowledge that this isn’t just remote work; it’s remote work during a global pandemic. Employees may be navigating everything from 24/7 childcare to care for elderly parents to concern about spouses and other members of the household working as doctors, grocery store cashiers, and more.

“The kids think we’ve all been through this before,” says Margaret Arakawa, the chief marketing officer of Outreach and mother of a 12-year-old; she lives in Kirkland, Wash., near the original center of the Seattle coronavirus outbreak, and her husband is a first responder who expects to at some point come into contact with the virus. “But this is unprecedented.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—This famed economist doesn’t think we’re headed for another Great Recession
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—How hackers are exploiting the coronavirus—and how to protect yourself
—Hong Kong launches surveillance operation to track suspected coronavirus patients
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: The race is on to create a coronavirus antiviral drug and vaccine

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