Nicole and Jason Bradeen with their sons West, 5, and Theo, 8, at their home in Portland. Nicole, who works at Waynflete, and Jason, who is a school counselor in Saco, are worried about how they’ll make three different school schedules work in the fall, especially if students have to go back in small groups or with a modified schedule. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For the last two months Amanda Schulman Brokaw has been able to align her work schedule with the remote learning demands of her two school-age sons.

Her hours at her job as an art teacher for adults with intellectual disabilities have been cut because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has given her more free time to supervise the boys while her husband continues to work a mostly normal schedule as a construction project manager.

But that could change soon, as Schulman Brokaw is anticipating returning to work as early as June 11, when Gov. Janet Mills’ state of emergency lifts. She is eager to earn her full salary again, though the return to work also presents another problem for her family and others around Maine.

Children are still home, many summer activities and camps have been canceled and there’s no definitive answer on whether school will return to normal in the fall or students will again be learning remotely.

Maine has yet to release guidance on what a return to school will look like, though it increasingly seems like a normal school day won’t be possible, at least not right away. For working parents, that presents a problem: How do they return to their jobs when their children are still at home?

“Everyone relies on school,” said Schulman Brokaw, 42, of Portland. “It’s basically child care. I know teachers do a lot more than that, but it’s also about having a safe place for your kids to go.”

There also is the concern that children are missing out on all the benefits of going to school. At the same time, parents have a common worry about sending children back: Will it be safe?

Amanda Eason, a clinical nurse at Maine Medical Center whose husband works in human resources at the Portland hospital, said her family has been piecing together child care for their four children while schools have been closed.

Her husband works from home one day per week and a high school-age cousin watches the children when both Eason and her husband are at work.

“I don’t think anybody’s ready to say one way or another (what school will look like),” said Eason, of Scarborough. “We’re definitely worried about that, just because we are a two-parent working household. We need our kids to go to school.”

In Portland, Nicole Bradeen and her husband, Jason, have been juggling four school schedules for the last two months. Their children are in prekindergarten and second grade in different Portland schools while Bradeen works at Waynflete School and her husband is a school counselor in Saco.

Bradeen said she is anticipating that a return to school in the fall will include some sort of modified schedule with students returning in small groups or only attending school in person part time. She worries that teachers and school staff will still have to be in school in person full time, posing a challenge for those with their own children at home.

“We can’t leave our kids by themselves at home so someone is going to have to be home all the time, which means someone’s job will have to go, which means that’s (a loss in) income and salaries,” said Bradeen, 44.

There’s the option to hire a baby sitter or send the children to child care, but that can get expensive.

“In some ways I would rather take part of a pay cut and try and make it up in other ways,” Bradeen said. “We have had great baby sitters in Portland, but they’re not cheap. You’re looking at $20 to $25 an hour for someone to come in.”

For parents who work in schools, the prospect of an irregular schedule in the fall poses a particular challenge as they think about whether they might need to balance being in school full time or on a different schedule with their children still be home sometimes.

“If it’s every other day or even a half-day, we would have to get help from our in-laws, but then that poses a risk since they’re older,” said Sarah Blaisdell, a Scarborough High School math teacher and mother of a second- and fourth-grader. Another option if her children are home in the fall would be for her husband, an engineer, to continue working from home.

For all parents, the concerns about child care and scheduling are weighing on top of other worries about whether school will be safe, whether their children have fallen behind and the social and emotional toll of the pandemic.

Blaisdell said she thinks Maine has done a good job responding to the pandemic and she trusts the state to offer the best guidance around reopening schools.

“My kids definitely are craving being back in the school environment,” she said. “We have our ups and downs. We have days where they don’t give me a hard time about getting work done and then we have days where there are tantrums and fits.”

But she’s also thinking about what the best way is for students to come back to school safely. So far there are more questions than answers.

“I don’t know how you can keep kids away from each other on the bus,” she said. “Class sizes would have to be smaller. Obviously having 20 kids in a classroom wouldn’t allow for six feet of separation. I still don’t know what that would look like.”

Schulman Brokaw, who moved from New York City to Portland with her family two years ago, said she feels safer in Maine, which has seen fewer cases and deaths than many parts of the country.

She worries, though, about tourists bringing the virus to Maine and whether reopening would bring new risk. She also worries about what it means for her boys, who are going into sixth and eighth grades, to be at home on screens for hours per day.

“I just wish the experience of families seemed like more a part of the conversation,” she said. “You hear a lot about the economy and how business needs to reopen and I just think for the economy and business to reopen, there needs to be some consideration for schools and families and what they’re going to do, because they’re dependent upon each other.”

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