In Coos County, a surge in COVID-19 cases has posed challenges for working families.
In the past month, 7 of the county’s 13 early child care centers temporarily closed because children or staff members tested positive for COVID, or were exposed to a confirmed case.
Meanwhile, school systems have switched from classroom instruction to remote learning for periods of time, as overall cases in Coos County grew from two dozen in late August to more than 200 now.
That creates problems for working parents, especially those who can’t do their jobs from home, including front-line workers in healthcare, trades, and critical retail.
“It’s not pretty,” said Mollie White, executive manager of the Coos Coalition for Young People and Families.
Through multiple daily stakeholder meetings, White has heard about the struggles parents face during the pandemic.
The issue goes beyond school and daycare COVID shutdowns.
More kids are learning from home (to reduce household exposure to the virus), and fewer are in child care centers (due to state capacity restrictions).
That means more parents are facing tough choices this winter, White said. Some have quit their jobs to stay at home. Others have developed complicated arrangements, with alternating work-from-home schedules.
“It’s problematic at best,” White said.
The pandemic has strained households, emotionally and financially.
COVID-related closures are often abrupt, and families must adjust their schedules on the fly. Schools can go remote, and daycare centers can suspend operations within hours of a positive case reported among staff and students.
“It’s immediate,” said Ann Auger, coordinator for the Coos County Director’s Network. “You’ve got a day to figure it out. My girls [ages 4 and 2] were going to the Mother Goose Child Care Center in Berlin, and they had a shutdown, and it was pretty quick. Luckily I work from home, but that’s not the case for a lot of people.”
It’s not just parents feeling the pinch. Daycare providers have struggled to stay afloat.
Unlike schools, most early child care centers are for-profit businesses, and they have operated at a loss during the pandemic because of the state-ordered capacity limits.
Despite the lack of income, they are required to maintain a nearly full staff.
“They were already operating at razor-thin margins; now they’re asked to operate below capacity. It affects their bottom line severely.”
Meanwhile, some public schools face pushback as they schedule extended shutdowns to reduce the community spread of COVID during the holiday season.
The Littleton School Board heard from a group of parents Monday about that district’s remote learning plan from November 23 through January 19. They engaged in a sometimes heated 90-minute discussion on the matter.
At odds were the community’s public health and students’ social-emotional well being.
“Parents need to be heard before a decision gets made,” said parent Matt St. John, the father of a first-grader, who supports full, in-school learning for all students after Jan. 19. “Consider a remote opt-out option for families that allows you to satisfy the folks who want schools open … Please fight for their social and educational development as much as you fight against COVID because way too much hangs in the balance.”
Superintendent William Hart responded that New Hampshire’s new daily cases had grown from 51 on Oct. 1 to 459 on Nov. 13. Gov. Chris Sununu has predicted 500 to 1,000 new cases a day by the end of the month.
“It’s changing rapidly,” he said. “In just another couple of weeks, we will have people traveling [during] the two biggest travel holidays in our country… Travel exacerbates the issue.”
All of this impacts the region’s workforce.
New Hampshire’s unemployment rate for October 2020 was 4.2 percent or 30,310 residents. That’s up from 2.2 percent and 19,940 in October 2019.
Locally, unemployment rates have exceeded the state average in most Coos County and northern Grafton County, particularly along the Littleton-Berlin corridor, where many jobs originate from the hard-hit retail, tourism, and hospitality industries.
Meanwhile, the Granite State reached a grim milestone this week.
New Hampshire recorded its 500th COVID-related death since the state’s first case on March 1. The state has had 15,303 infections (3,551 active), 817 hospitalizations (77 active), and 502 deaths.