Access to childcare in the midst of COVID-19

FUHSD teachers utilize the FUHSD-Action Day partnership and childcare facilities


Hilary Barron

MVHS social science teacher Hilary Barron poses with her two-year-old son in this photo. Photo courtesy of Hilary Barron

Oishee Misra


Soon after Fremont Union High School District (FUHSD) shifted to distance learning in March of 2020, MVHS social science teacher Hilary Barron remembers Max, her then 18-month-old son, figuring out why his mom’s email frequently dinged. When Max’s daycare abruptly shut down and Barron had to stay home with him, she adapted by hosting entirely asynchronous classes last spring. 

His former daycare, PELC, was a smaller, part-time program that Max attended three days a week, staying with her parents for the other two weekdays. With the pandemic, however, Barron was worried about increased susceptibility to COVID-19 for her parents if this system continued. 

Subsequently, when childcare reopened later, Barron’s family enrolled Max in a new daycare, Action Day Primary Plus, in July. Not only did this daycare offer care five days a week, but Barron also received a discount due to a partnership forged between FUHSD and Action Day. 

“My husband takes him to the daycare at around 9 a.m., but my classes start before then, so we’ve set up my classroom in an upstairs bedroom where I can close the door,” Barron said. “He’s definitely started to be more ‘Oh mommy’s working.’ He’s kind of sad when I have to go grade papers, but he really likes his daycare. I pick him up after school, so it’s been a challenge to get everything done and to get the energy to open my computer again at around 9 p.m. [for the next day]. By the end of the week, I crash, and [on] Saturdays, I nap all day and try to get into the grading and planning and groceries and laundry again on Sunday.” 

Action Day President Cathy Jelic explains that they shut down and transitioned to Zoom for their private elementary school components in March, and with scarce information about the severity of the virus, expected the pandemic to recede soon. Since childcare was soon thereafter deemed essential, they reopened in May and by June, had financially rebounded for the most part. 

Jelic notes their adherence to CDC guidelines and the multitude of precautions that they’re taking, including a pod system where each classroom is isolated and does not allow contact with anyone aside from one teacher and 12 students, daily temperature checks and frequent use of sanitizing sprays. Despite occasional secondary exposures, the organization’s 1,400+ kids, between all of their 11 campuses, have stayed healthy.

“We definitely have moved with the rollercoaster,” Jelic said. “But getting the kids back into our centers has been wonderful, both for the families and for our teachers. Not to say it isn’t different or it’s more work, but … we feel that childcare is such an important service, and especially the young ones, they need stimulation constantly, and we’re happy to be able to provide that.” 

Jelic estimates that FUHSD and Action Day began their partnership 15 years ago and since then, the practice has benefited both parties. Recently, Action Day even initiated a distance learning support program in which students in the CUSD elementary and middle schools could bring their learning devices and come to a classroom located at Fremont High School, where employees would facilitate and check-in on them.

Like Barron, FHS P.E. and AVID teacher Lauren Irwin uses Action Day for her child. Her family started doing so for her older daughter, now seven, in January of 2014, and Irwin currently continues to use it for her 3-year-old daughter.   

“We really like Action Day,” Irwin said. “It’s not only the discount, but when we first started there in 2014, I walked into that office and the woman that ran the childcare facility, as we were getting a tour, they knew every single child’s name, and the children didn’t shy away from them, they were running up to them. It seemed really nice, and it felt like it was a family more than just the childcare center.”

After their March closure, however, Irwin did not send her daughter back until Sept. 1; she had some reservations, not knowing how her daughter would react to their new protocols, but was reassured by conversations with colleagues who had already begun sending their children back to Action Day. 

Although having renewed access to childcare has helped Irwin, the reduced hours that they currently run — 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. as opposed to their previous hours of 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. — have created some issues. With her husband working out of the home, it’s not possible to drop her daughter off at 7:30 a.m. and then return in time for school on the days that it starts at 8 a.m.. As a result, she is only able to utilize their facilities three days a week.

Further attesting to these unique new challenges that have emerged as a result of childcare during a pandemic, Barron shares a recent anecdote where her son had a fever a couple weeks ago, and had to get a COVID-19 test. He tested negative, but Barron says that the entire experience was stress-inducing; not only did she have a recovering child at home, but Action Day also had policies pertaining to when he could return, leading to the situation being even more prolonged. 

“It’s been a lot of mental and emotional strain to think about risk management and whether I am making the right decision here, or is this going to lead to more heartache,” Barron said. “I’ve had a couple of instances last spring and summer where I was creating symptoms, like becoming a hypochondriac, fearful of everything. I’ve been trying to do some deep breathing and yoga and to try to deal with that, but that has been the scariest part: the uncertainty, the risk management.”

Barron also mentions reading articles about how working mothers are being hit hard by COVID-19, with their careers in jeopardy. Although she resonates with the emotional impact of this, Barron says she’s grateful to live in a family-supportive district and feels lucky to have retained a stable career. 

FHS PE and AVID teacher Lauren Irwin’s younger daughter, two-years-old in this image, plays with her toy blocks. Photo courtesy of Lauren Irwin

Echoing a similar sentiment, Jelic notes that the founder of Action Day, Carol Freitas, started it in the early 1970s to support working mothers. At the time, women straying from traditional gender roles and joining the workforce had just started to become more commonplace. As a woman studying child development at a community college, Fredeis wanted to create a place where working mothers could be supported, as well as somewhere for her classmates and herself to learn child development through practical experiences.

“Right now, some jobs have moved to at-home, and some parents are still bringing their children here, and some aren’t,” Jelic said. “They have to weigh in, does the cost of childcare outweigh what I’m going to make in the workforce? So I do think that there’s going to be a percentage that will decide to stay home and be their new teacher, as you would say, at home. [But], it’s hard to have both a career and be a full-time mom with your child at home. If they’re in care or in school, sure, but to manage all that, I would think that it would be taxing, especially with small ones, and even with older teenagers, they have needs as well.” 

Irwin agrees, but also weighs in on the privilege of having childcare, since “childcare in this country is kind of a luxury, [and] it’s really expensive,” and access is much harder for some families. She feels lucky that she is able to afford a childcare facility where it’s possible to implement precautions like pods and frequent contact tracing — the same people are attending every day. She adds that even with some California counties recently moving back to the Purple Tier, she feels safe continuing to send her child to care, once again attesting to this privilege. Not only that, but Jelic mentions that childcare is also a necessity, even and especially in the midst of a pandemic that feels relentless. 

“We just have to make the best of the situation that we’re in,” Jelic said. “And we have a lot of families that are essential workers, like we have a contract with some of the nearby hospitals and if they don’t have childcare, they can’t care for our sick and those who need it.”

Irwin says that in an unprecedented time like this, her coping mechanism and strategy has been to just embrace the chaos. 

“I just try to be as real with my students as possible,” Irwin said. “They joke that I’m not just their teacher, I’m a juice fetcher. They know that my kids don’t like to wait, so sometimes I have to get up and get [my kids] juice in the middle of me trying to explain directions, because that’s what will help me be able to explain them.”

Barron and Irwin both agree on feeling fortunate. For Barron, her child is at an age where she doesn’t have the added difficulty of helping her son learn in a distance learning format — she “really feels for the parents of kindergarteners, who are trying to care for their child, help their child learn and then also do their job.” 

She and Irwin both take advantage of opportunities to alleviate stress and preserve their mental health, even if that’s just by taking a walk to the park.  

“I think if anything, this has just made us realize more that self care is important,” Irwin said. “So I’ve made time for myself in the evenings to just decompress. I know not everybody’s as lucky as I am, to be able to still have a job during [the pandemic]. And so during it, I’m just trying to look at what’s positive in the situation. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hard days in parenting and hard days in teaching. But the more I can focus on what’s positive in this whole situation for me as a parent, that’s how I’ve survived.”