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Covid-19 'orange zone' forces parents to scramble for child care

Buffalo News - 11/21/2020

Nov. 21--It feels like March all over again for many parents in Erie County's "orange zone."

Schools are about to close with very little notice, and they're scrambling to find child care.

Employers are trying to help, but some parents once again find themselves having to choose between their paycheck and their children's education.

Victoria Orton-Joya of Williamsville found out in the spring how hard it can be to work full time and help her young children with remote schooling.

"Knowing they were going to go remote this year, I did have to make a decision to basically leave my position," said Orton-Joya, the coordinator for a mental health program. "I had to basically resign."

She agreed to stay on until her employer can find someone to take her place. Once that happens, she said she will step down entirely and focus on remote schooling for her daughter, a kindergartner, and son, a second grader at Forest Elementary School in Williamsville.

They've been attending school in person two days a week, and remote learning "doesn't really work well for them," she said.

Their teachers have been helpful, she said. But helping children navigate online learning is difficult.

"For all the families that do have to work and balance this, I don't have any idea how they're doing it," Orton-Joya said. "I'm not doing it well myself -- that's why I am resigning."

She said she is OK financially for now, but she will have to go back to work at some point.

Learning centers at no cost

There is help available for families finding themselves in a child care crisis, and for many of them, it comes at no cost.

Erie County offers 80 virtual learning support centers where children 5 to 12 years old can come during the school day while their parents are working.

The centers offer adult supervision, meals and a place where kids can bring their laptops or iPads and do their schoolwork. Students can come anywhere from one day a week to all five.

"Parents should know they don't have to struggle alone," said Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte.

The centers are run by various community centers, churches and other organizations.

For families whose income is at or below the median, the centers are free. For a family of two, the maximum income is $68,256, for example, and for a family of four, the threshold is $100,377.

Families whose income exceeds the limits can still use the centers, but must pay. Each center sets its own rate, but the most they can charge is $50 a day, Whyte said.

There are nearly 1,800 spots still available in the centers.

After several weeks in operation, there has been only one case of Covid-19 at the centers, she noted.

"The quality control measures have been so effective that eight weeks in, we've had only one case," she said. "Parents can feel very confident that the control measures at the virtual learning support centers are effective."

Families who are interested can call 877-6666 to find one closest to them.

The county has allocated about $13 million in federal CARES Act money to fund the 80 centers.

New students will be accepted until Nov. 30. At that point, the enrollment will be locked in, and any unspent funds will be reallocated by the county.

Help finding child care

Some businesses offer their employees help with finding child care.

M&T Bank recently launched a membership through, providing employees with free access to find care for children, elders or individuals with special needs.

"This new employee benefit will be especially valuable for branch staff and other critical employees whose job roles require them to be in the office," said Julia Berchou, an M&T spokeswoman.

At Target, employees have access to free "backup care" through the end of the year. They can use up to 20 days of child care at day care centers or in-home options when they find themselves in a pinch.

And KeyBank offers its employees child care referral services and discounts on care and educational support, according to Matt Pitts, a spokesman. Bank employees also can work part time or flex their hours.

'Doing whatever we can'

Flexibility seems to be the watchword among employers as school shutdowns loom on Monday.

Some people who have to report to work in person were able to adjust their schedule to accommodate their child care needs.

"We know this is challenging for families," said Michele Mehaffy, a Wegmans spokeswoman. "We have always been proud of our ability to provide our people with flexible scheduling, and we will continue to do everything we can to help our folks balance their busy lives at home and at work."

Many manufacturers have continued operating throughout the pandemic and have learned to adjust to what schools are doing, said Peter Coleman, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance.

"We've been living with this, and most small to medium enterprises have adjusted schedules to accommodate," he said, "including weekends, later hours, earlier hours, just doing whatever we can to get the man-hours that we need."

Coleman said he wasn't aware of any manufacturers saying they were losing employees who couldn't come to work due to having children learning at home.

"The No. 1 asset of all the manufacturers is their skilled labor force, where our biggest shortages are, so they're going to accommodate them as best they can while we go through this," Coleman said.

Another local employer that's been offering as much flexibility as possible: Erie County Medical Center. The hospital is doing what will work to support its front-line clinical team "to accommodate alternative schedules or leaves of absence, recognizing that we have to provide care 24/7 to our patients," said Peter Cutler, a spokesman.

"We realize that this is a very stressful time for the entire ECMC family and we will do everything we can to support them," he said, "including providing IT support for online learning for the children of staff."

At Kaleida Health, which operates several local hospitals, being flexible isn't easy when it involves more than 1,000 employees and work rules sometimes covered by union contracts.

"We flexed schedules back in the spring and then again when schools reopened in the fall," said Michael Hughes, Kaleida's senior vice president. "It's certainly a challenge with a workforce this large but we are doing as much as we can to support our front-line workforce."


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