Coronavirus: A Working Parents’ Guide to Handling the Unexpected

As of this morning, eight states have declared a state of emergency in the wake of COVID-19: California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Schools in the hardest hit regions have already begun to close. Meanwhile, businesses around the country are exploring telecommuting options, while others have already instituted work-from-home mandates. Experts expect the outbreak to spread to all 50 states; only the extent of the severity is unknown.

In these tumultuous and uncertain times, what’s a working parent to do?

While children are not being targeted by the worst of the coronavirus’ wrath, working parents are nevertheless losing sleep. They are worried about quarantines, school closures and work closures. They are worried about the impact on grandparents. And they are worried about the cost of extra childcare, lost wages and the preservation of their sanity.

The following is our three-step guide on how to handle the unexpected:

1. Stay Calm

Keep perspective. While the coronavirus is likely to be disruptive for some time, it is not Armageddon. We must continue to reassure, and not allow our own fears and worries to impact the psyches of our children. Alex Barzvi, Ph.D., chief pediatric psychology advisor at MommaWork, co-host of “About Our Kids” on Doctor Radio and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone School of Medicine, says, “By staying calm we communicate to our children that we are in control and we are able to handle significant challenges. Children learn best through modeling, and by demonstrating problem-solving skills to navigate a complex situation, we teach them how to do the same.” Now is the time to show our kids “we’ve got this.”

For the most part, kids are less worried about the fallout from the coronavirus and simply giddy about the idea of possible school closings. Understandably, it is difficult for children to grasp the idea that Mom or Dad might not be equally as excited about a day off work. And while some might be, most working parents, and especially those within the sandwich generation, are feeling the pressure of the unknown. How will we handle school closings and work closings? How will our family be financially impacted? How will we handle the care of a loved one, should they fall ill?

While we cannot control whether our communities will be directly impacted by the coronavirus, we can remain calm, continue to model positive behavior and show our children that we are in control. By making preparations now and setting expectations for those around us, working parents can ease their burden and come out shining like a rockstar both at home and at work.

2. Prepare

Now is the time to make preparations in the event of school and work closings in your area. Consider all the various scenarios. What would you do if (1) school closed and work closed; (2) school closed, but work remained open; (3) school remained open and work closed; and lastly (4) school and work both remain open, but you are uncomfortable with the call made.

Consider your childcare options and create a backup.

If you currently use a daycare facility, will they continue operations in the event of local school shutdowns? If they do not yet have a plan in place, ask them to issue a statement. Do you use an in-house nanny? Does she have children? Will she be able to continue to work for you if her children’s schools shut down? Is there a local babysitter you can use? If so, hire them now! Is there a local teenager available? If you don’t have a backup option, post an ad on a local Facebook community page and begin interviewing. Mapping out your childcare options now will relieve some of the burden later.

Plan for online schooling.

Many school districts have already begun to take learning out of the classroom and have placed their lesson plans online. As more and more schools begin to close, this seems to be the intention of school districts everywhere. Online learning at home presents a host of additional considerations. Where will your children work? Will your children share the same communal learning space where supervision will be easier, or will they be allowed to logon from their individual bedrooms or workspaces? How will you manage their progression and minimize distractions? Do you have the technical infrastructure to support online learning for multiple students simultaneously? Do you have enough electronic devices? If not, will your school make additional resources available? How would you monitor your children and their appropriate use of electronics during the online school day? Thinking through these scenarios, and having the appropriate conversations with school leaders in anticipation of potential closures, will ensure a seamless transition of your child’s studies from the classroom to your home.

Prepare to work from home.

We are seeing shutdowns take place everywhere from sporting arenas to universities, with many employees being temporarily sidelined. Now is the time to ask yourself, are you able to work from home? And if you are lucky to have a role that lends itself to telecommuting capabilities, what will that look like in the face of simultaneous school shutdowns? First, do you have the technological capabilities of logging into the office, or will you need to accomplish tasks offline? How would you connect with your supervisor and team, in the event of a shutdown? Do you have their personal contact information? Is there anything from the office that you physically need to handle your responsibilities from home? In the event of a sudden shutdown, how would you access those items? Is there a place within your home that would be the most conducive to working from home? If you and your spouse both find yourselves working from home, will this space need to be shared? Don’t be afraid to broach these difficult, but important conversations. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” so plan ahead and set yourself, and your team, up for success.

Organize Entertainment

Two to three weeks out of school will feel like an eternity, especially when practicing “social distancing,” the recommendation by health professionals to restrict social gatherings to limit the spread of the disease. Absent the sudden appearance of Mary Poppins, what is a parent to do? First, create a secret snack stash, with the type of snacks your children love, but you would never ordinarily agree to buying. Next, stock up on age-appropriate activities: puzzles, art projects, toys, video games, movies, books, etc. But here is the catch—do not dole them out all at once! Not more than one new shiny treasure per day. Remember, a little boredom is OK and allows for a child’s innate creativity to flourish. Finally, don’t overlook the chef in everyone, and engage the kids in the cooking process. Make sure you have basic ingredients on hand now and go at it. Baking is a great way to pass the time and produces the best cabin fever rewards.

3. Set Expectations

In a time when uncertainty lurks, setting expectations can provide clarity for you and those around you. This is of particular importance when dealing with your children, your supervisor, your childcare provider and your schools.

What your kids can expect.

In the event your kids must participate in online learning, establish those boundaries now. They should give their teacher the same respect via online learning they would give in the classroom: no toggling between screens, no phones, no AirPods, no gum, full participation. Consider whether they will be allowed to participate in online learning with friends, or whether they should practice “social distancing.”

In the event you or your partner find yourself working from home, remind your kids you are doing just that—working from home. Explain that you will have the same availability as if you were at the office. Establish time parameters, letting your kids know when you will begin and finish work each day, and whether or not you will be able to share lunch with them. Unless you have teenagers, who will squirrel away in their room endlessly, it is inevitable that your children will seek you out and want your attention. While a beautiful thing, it might make working from home difficult. Have a “do not interrupt” sign prepared and post it in advance of important phone calls or timely assignments and try to use it judiciously.

What your manager can expect.

Rather than asking for accommodations, present a plan that demonstrates your ability to recognize the needs of the company, prioritize tasks and accomplish team goals in the midst of an outbreak that would cause school and/or work closings. Talk to your manager/s now about your responsibilities, any upcoming projects, your top priorities and your ability to carry on from home, should the need arise. Address any concerns, including the need to secure online access, put together a team contingency plan, or alter your work schedule if faced with school closures. During your discussions, focus your attention on how addressing your needs would advance the company’s agenda and increase overall productivity.

What you can expect from your childcare provider.

Make it known to your childcare provider that you are relying on them as your primary source of care and that they have a responsibility to keep you informed of their availability were it to change. Express that you understand these are difficult times for many, and that you understand that they, too, have responsibilities to their own families. Simultaneously, remind them that they have a duty to provide you with as much notice as possible should their situation change. For the working parent, advance notice is critical when seeking alternative childcare.

What you can expect from your local schools.

If your local schools have not already communicated their game plan in the event of an outbreak, ask them for one. As a working parent, you deserve the right to know what to expect, to the extent they know. What is the plan in case of an outbreak at school? How and when would that information be communicated to parents? Does the school have the potential of closing mid-day? Are they making plans for virtual learning? And what would virtual learning look like in your district, and for your child’s particular grade? How would tests be conducted? Would teachers be available for questions via email or phone? In the event of an outbreak, would the school close for 14 days or 21 days? Will any of the upcoming special events, spring concerts or celebrations be cancelled at this point? If cancelled, would they be rescheduled and if so, when?

As working parents, we are all navigating an unpaved path of worry in the face of the coronavirus. Never in our lifetime have we experienced such a widespread outbreak, nor have we had to deal with the trifecta of closed schools, closed work and limited childcare. Understandably, we are currently operating in a haze. But working parents have also been presented with an opportunity.

Done right, our children will look back upon the extra time spent at home positively, savoring the memory of that lunch date with Dad or the opportunity to hear Mom crush a sales call. Remember, not all learning happens in the classroom.

And at work, you now have the chance to set yourself apart. Show yourself as someone able to prepare, take the lead, manage expectations and follow through on self-directed efforts. Whether or not any lockdowns, quarantines or closures actually occur, setting yourself apart as a leader now can have positive long-term impacts on your career.

So breathe. We will get through this together.


Debi Yadegari is the founder and CEO of MommaWork, a management consulting firm that strategically partners with companies to provide truly invaluable working parent support, which has a direct return on investment for the employer. MommaWork offers support services for the employer and working parent, because they believe working parents should not have to choose between their personal goals and professional success.