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Nicole Ruggeri, right, explains to her daughter, Naia, how she needs to make ten groups of ten shells in order to get to one hundred for her Oak Grove Elementary School first-grade class, at their home near Sebastopol on Friday, January 29, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Pandemic upends employment for Sonoma County mothers, driving many out of workforce

When school campuses shut down almost one year ago at the start of the pandemic, Nicole Ruggeri put her head down and made a plan to take on the education of her 6-year-old daughter and keep her full-time job managing an essential oil company.

They were up and out of their rural Sebastopol home by 6 a.m., bags full of snacks and lunches, activities, Legos and school books. Kindergarten Zoom lessons turned into first grade Zooms as the months wore on. Ruggeri had Naia making forts with boxes, doing reading drills with essential oil labels — “Find the frankincense!“ — and letting her watch TV shows so Ruggeri could turn toward her own work.

But the pressure to keep up with both her daughter’s school demands and a 40- to 55-hour workweek became unbearable. So Ruggieri did something in December she never imagined she would do. She quit her job.

Nicole Ruggeri takes her six-year-old daughter, Naia, out exploring the woods around their home near Sebastopol, during a break between distance learning classes on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Nicole Ruggeri takes her six-year-old daughter, Naia, out exploring the woods around their home near Sebastopol, during a break between distance learning classes on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

“I’m used to doing several things at once. I’ve almost always had two jobs,” said Ruggieri, 49. “This past year ate me up alive.”

Schools and day care centers closed across the nation last March at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a cascade of improvisation for the parents of Sonoma County’s nearly 120,000 children. The vast majority of kids remain at home nearly a year later, their daily education narrowed to online classes delivered by stressed teachers — and overseen by harried parents.

District administrators, teachers unions, governors and health experts, meanwhile, continue to grapple with when to reopen campuses. In Sonoma County — unlike Mendocino, Marin and Napa — only private schools have brought children back to the classroom. A decision on when to reopen has yet to come for public school districts in the county and the limbo is putting yet more strain on parents.

The economic toll of shutting down schools has fallen heaviest on working mothers, who are taking on the bulk of child care and education. While equity between mothers and fathers in the same home continues to improve, according to research, the pandemic has exposed how pay inequity and other factors still put the biggest share of the domestic work onto mothers.

The multi-generational home of Donna Prak while she has dinner with her husband Sam Prak, far left, their three children, Rosalia, 11, Leena Mae, 10, Sokhayne, 13, and her parents Maria and Donald Martinez at their home in Santa Rosa, California on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Through this entire pandemic the Prak's have a dinner time tradition where each family member tells the best and worst part of their day. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)
The multi-generational home of Donna Prak while she has dinner with her husband Sam Prak, far left, their three children, Rosalia, 11, Leena Mae, 10, Sokhayne, 13, and her parents Maria and Donald Martinez at their home in Santa Rosa, California on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Through this entire pandemic the Prak's have a dinner time tradition where each family member tells the best and worst part of their day. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)

Women hit harder

And the economic disparities between men and women have only worsened during the pandemic. More women have left the workforce than men, either by choice or because of involuntary cuts.

“My husband’s job was more demanding and my job was more flexible; his salary is higher than mine was,” said Jennifer Freese of Santa Rosa, who said she quit a job she loved in August once she learned for sure schools would not reopen for the 2020-21 year. “We have a really, really balanced partnership in terms of parenting. He’s extremely helpful. But at the end of the day he had to go to work.”

Freese, 40, said managing schooling for their sons, first grader Rory and fourth grader Owen, had already fallen to her because of the flexibility of her job as director of spiritual education for the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Santa Rosa. Her husband, Sean Freese, works as director of technology for Sonoma Academy and the work often required he be on campus.

A credentialed teacher who has also taught elementary school, Freese delighted in her job — the families, the creativity.

Donna Prak's son Sokhayne Prak, 13, beside his collection of sports trophies in his bedroom and although restricted from team sports due to the pandemic he plays basketball everyday in his backyard at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.  (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)
Donna Prak's son Sokhayne Prak, 13, beside his collection of sports trophies in his bedroom and although restricted from team sports due to the pandemic he plays basketball everyday in his backyard at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)

“I thought for the fall, maybe it’ll be hybrid school, or maybe we could hire a nanny to work three afternoons a week,” Freese said. “Then it came out there was going to be no in-person learning. I was like, I can’t do this, this is not going to work.”

Facing another school year of distance learning for her two children, Freese resigned in August.

Prolonged and widespread campus closures have upended the financial outlook for a generation of working mothers, economists say. They are hitting the brakes on their careers, passing up advancement, living off unemployment, delaying contributions to retirement accounts.

Unlike previous recessions that weighed heavily on male-dominated fields such as manufacturing and construction, this pandemic has throttled and shuttered industries dominated by a female workforce — hospitality, food service, health care and government.

There were 4.2 million fewer women employed in January than there were a year ago, compared with 4.1 million fewer men, according to the jobs report released Friday by the Labor Department.

Unemployed women between 25 and 44 years old were three times more likely than men to cite child care demands as the reason they weren’t working, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The employment data is just one piece of the picture, and can mask the rate of underemployment and other factors affecting the employment outlook for women, said Michelle Conley, a professor of economics and social sciences at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Chantavy Tornado works with her 6-year-old son, Cohen Parker, on sounding out words while reading a book at their home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.  Parker was unable to continue his first-grade Zoom class due to a power failure, so Tornado had to improvise his lessons.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Chantavy Tornado works with her 6-year-old son, Cohen Parker, on sounding out words while reading a book at their home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Parker was unable to continue his first-grade Zoom class due to a power failure, so Tornado had to improvise his lessons. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Balancing act

The impact on women in the workforce “is a huge concern,” said Conley, who has three children and like many works late at night in order to balance the demands of her kids’ education.

“The long-term effect of this is something we’re going to be watching for years to see how this plays out,” she said.

In Sonoma County government, the largest local employer, women make up about 58% of the 3,800 person workforce, but they accounted for 65% of those who quit since March, human resources officials said. And women represent 64% of county employees who have taken leave under the federal stimulus bill passed last spring, which expanded leave benefits to include parents who must be with children because of school and day care closures.

“It’s a hard truth and a pill to swallow: Our structures don’t privilege us not being the stay-at-home parent,” Alegría De La Cruz, the county’s equity officer, said of women. “The data shows. It shows it makes financial sense for the woman to stay home. That’s not the world we want to live in.”

De La Cruz also serves as a trustee for Santa Rosa City Schools, which is embroiled in a heated debate over school reopening and the balance between teacher safety and the damaging social and economic ripples that come from closed classrooms.

De La Cruz said she recognizes that reopening schools is a critical step toward reviving the economy and that “we can lift that burden on women if we can reopen our schools — there’s a direct correlation there.” But she criticized the way in which both federal and state governments have failed to develop a strong policy for how to manage complex decisions in the pandemic, which in the case of schools means leaving it up to local districts to make the call.

Siblings Rosalia Prak, 11, left, and Leena Mae Prak, 10, with their dog Shayla at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.(Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)
Siblings Rosalia Prak, 11, left, and Leena Mae Prak, 10, with their dog Shayla at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.(Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)

“It’s really been amazing to see how the smallest layer of local government — the school district — we’re grappling with macro level societal challenges,” De La Cruz said. “That’s the reality of the COVID pandemic. And I think we’ve seen people at very high levels pass the buck as far down as you can get it.”

Last year was a “catastrophic year for working women“ according to an analysis of federal job data by the National Women’s Law Center. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit said the workforce participation rate for women dipped down to 57%, the lowest it has been since 1988.

The pandemic recession appears also to have erased some of the hard-earned gains on income equity, widening the wage gap between men and women by 5 percentage points, according to an August report produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonpartisan nonprofit.

County’s day care crunch

There already was a huge chasm in Sonoma County between the overwhelming need for affordable day care and the spots available, and the pandemic has made that disparity even worse, said Jessica Wood, who serves on the county’s Commission on the Status of Women.

A Santa Rosa city analysis produced last fall showed about 7,250 of 12,500 slots for kids in local child care centers had been lost, at least temporarily, because of the pandemic.

Naia Ruggeri, six, and Nicole Ruggeri watch a storybook read on video for Naia's first-grade distance learning class, at their home near Sebastopol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.  Nicole Ruggeri left her job as a business manager to dedicate more time to Naia's education needs.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Naia Ruggeri, six, and Nicole Ruggeri watch a storybook read on video for Naia's first-grade distance learning class, at their home near Sebastopol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Nicole Ruggeri left her job as a business manager to dedicate more time to Naia's education needs. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“In this pandemic, I’ve seen two-parent families where the man still gets to leave the house and go to his job, and somehow the responsibilities of rearing the children, being in charge of the schooling, it falls on the woman, it really does,” said Wood, 36, of Santa Rosa. “We’ve been seeing it over and over, women not being able to work.”

Wood knows from personal experience how affordable child care can provide the essential building block for financial stability. A single mother with three children, she said subsidized child care programs were crucial to her advancement. She’s finishing graduate school in public administration at Sonoma State University and working as a substitute teacher.

Wood is holding out hope that the pandemic awakens more people to the need to support funding avenues for affordable, quality child care. She said the county several years ago tried to provide more funding for child care programs through a tax on soda, but it failed to gain sufficient support.

Chantavy Tornado gives her six-year-old son, Cohen Parker, a high-five while working on math skills at their home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Chantavy Tornado gives her six-year-old son, Cohen Parker, a high-five while working on math skills at their home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

For the commission, Wood is working on a series of radio discussions about the pandemic’s impact on women, particularly working mothers. She hopes to bring ideas to the county Board of Supervisors for tangible, impactful programs it can advance to help women.

“If well-to-do families are struggling, what’s going on with those most vulnerable families?” Wood said. “We have to do whatever we can to bring those families some relief — and that’s often child care assistance.”

Plans on hold

For 20-year-old Mirian Hernandez, the pandemic derailed her plans to finish a child development certificate and find a job in early childhood education or day care.

Chantavy Tornado works with her six-year-old son, Cohen Parker, on sounding out words while reading a book at their home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.  Parker was unable to continue his first-grade Zoom class due to a power failure, so Tornado had to improvise his lessons.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Chantavy Tornado works with her six-year-old son, Cohen Parker, on sounding out words while reading a book at their home in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Parker was unable to continue his first-grade Zoom class due to a power failure, so Tornado had to improvise his lessons. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Child care for her 2-year-old-son was tied to her enrollment at Santa Rosa Junior College. When the pandemic hit, the junior college moved all courses online and shut its day care sites. She was nearly finished with her requirements and couldn’t take an essential class because it required she spend nine hours each week in classrooms, which all of a sudden were closed.

Hernandez, who recently moved from Rohnert Park to Santa Rosa, said she and her boyfriend needed to keep their jobs, hers at Target and his at a collection agency. They enlisted a teen relative to watch their toddler, though it was not an ideal situation. Hernandez said they used their lunch breaks to check on the pair, make sure they had lunch and drive them to parks.

Tracy Kline pulls double schoolwork duty with her two sons, Cooper Baron, left, 9, and Parker Baron, right, just before starting a work conference call for herself, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 at their home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Tracy Kline pulls double schoolwork duty with her two sons, Cooper Baron, left, 9, and Parker Baron, right, just before starting a work conference call for herself, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 at their home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

She finally found a home day care provider, but it’s a costly $700 per month plus the hefty cost of supplying diapers, wipes and disposable masks — about $50 for 48 masks. It all adds up.

She found a better paying job working the graveyard shift at a cafe inside a local casino. She has more hours, a reliable schedule — and it’s a relief. But she has to catch her sleep during the day and doesn’t see a way to complete her certificate any time soon.

“I do want to finish my certificate because I was so close,” Hernandez said. “But as far as going back to school, I don’t see myself doing that soon. It’s just a lot.”

Cooper Baron, 9, takes out excess energy on the family trampoline, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 during a remote recess period at his home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Cooper Baron, 9, takes out excess energy on the family trampoline, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021 during a remote recess period at his home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Challenge for single parents

The pressures can be even more complex for single parents.

Before the pandemic, Chantavy Tornado juggled jobs as a barista and a bartender, which gave her the financial stability and flexibility she needed to care for her son, who split time with her and his father.

After the pandemic hit, she was laid off from both jobs. Tornado, 32, took on the work of schooling her first grader so his father can keep working.

Tornado said she can’t look for work until schools reopen, and is receiving unemployment for now. Her son was accepted into a child care program in the Mark West Union School District, but it’s only for two hours in the afternoon for two days a week.

The abrupt shift from being a working parent to one at home has allowed her to focus more of her attention on her son, and also into community organizing, a true passion.

“I carry the pressure fairly well because I grew up with a single mom who raised four kids,” Tornado said. "For me, growing up in such a poor family, we struggled all the time.“

Tornado said she sees renewed patience and optimism in herself and others in her life even after days with unending chores and the difficult work of engaging children in their school work while they are so distanced from their classrooms.

Naia Ruggeri and her dog, Ty, climb a fallen tree while burning off energy between her first-grade distance learning Zoom classes, around their home near Sebastopol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Naia Ruggeri and her dog, Ty, climb a fallen tree while burning off energy between her first-grade distance learning Zoom classes, around their home near Sebastopol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

“Doing Zoom every morning, I see the kids aren’t getting enough attention,” Tornado said. “But I have to take a shower, brush my teeth, get ready for the day, do chores — school, life, work, teacher, crock pot.”

Tornado was a key organizer for demonstrations in Sonoma County over the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was killed in May by a white police officer. In the months since, she’s helped create two nonprofit organizations focused on social justice that she hopes to get off the ground.

“Weekends are nonexistent, but my son and I are saying to each other, ’Monday watch out for us, here we come!’” Tornado said. “It’s about process and acknowledging where it’s hard and allowing yourself to not be successful in some areas. Especially if you are working class and you are a single parent, you don’t have the savings to bounce back on.”

Rosalia Prak, 11, getting some help from her mother Donna Prak with her flower reproduction systems project for her science class at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Prak works as a nanny caring for two young children which leaves her own three children to spend most of their online learning days without the assistance of either their mother or father.(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Rosalia Prak, 11, getting some help from her mother Donna Prak with her flower reproduction systems project for her science class at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Prak works as a nanny caring for two young children which leaves her own three children to spend most of their online learning days without the assistance of either their mother or father.(Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Key rung missing

For decades, public schools have served as an essential rung on the economic ladder for parents, especially mothers in the workforce and those seeking to advance in careers, build independence and make ends meet.

Some local mothers said that with a dearth of affordable child care options, their child’s entrance into elementary school was something they had awaited for years.

Last February, Santa Rosa resident Alyssa Rumrill had just signed on with Compass real estate firm, where she was poised to finally put work into a career on hold after years focused on raising her child.

“In March my child came home from school and never left,” Rumrill said.

She shelved her new career and put her energy toward schooling her child.

Donna Prak with her daughter Leena Mae, 10, as the two get ready to sit down for dinner at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Donna Prak with her daughter Leena Mae, 10, as the two get ready to sit down for dinner at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

And while teachers are doing heroic work revamping lessons for virtual learning and trying to engage children through video screens, for many families, the schooling is even more daunting on the other side of the screen.

Parents report struggles to keep their children focused, directing school work and dealing with the emotional fallout when children inevitably crack under the strange reality of remote-based instruction.

Staying engaged

Kate Mckenzie, 46, of Santa Rosa said she had to provide significant support to keep her 7-year-old son engaged with his teacher on Zoom at the Spanish language immersion program at Kawana Springs Elementary.

Tracy Kline's family room is all about family as she guides her two children, Cooper Baron, left, 9, and Parker Baron, right, in their daily classwork, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, at their home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Tracy Kline's family room is all about family as she guides her two children, Cooper Baron, left, 9, and Parker Baron, right, in their daily classwork, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, at their home in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Mckenzie, who uses the name Kate Nagle professionally, is a professional photographer, work that requires she constantly market her services and come up with creative ways to engage customers. Between virtual class lessons and the constant demands of a young child, there just wasn’t enough time to put her mind to work.

“My career is definitely suffering. It is what it is, and it’s a bummer,” Mckenzie said. “I see that with a lot of self-employed mothers that I’m friends with. You’re the one who has to make it work.”

So she and her husband started looking into child care options, which led them to compare the cost of child care and tuition at St. Eugene’s Catholic school, where children returned to classrooms part-time in January. The school tuition was more affordable and the benefits of having their son in the classroom were compelling, she said.

Donna Prak preparing dinner near her daughters Leena Mae Prak, 10, center and Rosalia Park, 11, at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021.  (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)
Donna Prak preparing dinner near her daughters Leena Mae Prak, 10, center and Rosalia Park, 11, at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)

They switched him in January and the difference was immediate.

“He’s an active, energetic and distracted kind of kid and Zoom was not working,” Mckenzie said.

Increasing workload

For many working parents, staying home is not an option.

A mother of three, Donna Prak’s caretaker work looking after two children — in addition to her own three kids — has increased since school campuses closed.

She puts in 10-hour shifts three days each week caring for two girls, who are in kindergarten and third grade, and helping them participate in Zoom classes and complete assignments.

Meanwhile, Prak’s children — ages 10, 11, and 13 — must manage school on their own. She’s proud of the independence they’ve gained and made peace with how often they bake cupcakes, but it’s a juggle keeping tabs on them from across town.

“They’re all doing well in school, but I have to stay on top of them from a distance, checking on them through Google Classroom,” Prak said. “There are times when they’ll call me at work, and I have to tell them I can’t talk right now, I’m in class. The teacher is talking about Common Core, I have to call you back.”

Donna Prak with her three children, from left, Leena Mae, 10, Rosalia, 11, and Sokhayne, 13, sitting on Leena Mae's bed at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Prak works as a nanny caring for two young children which leaves her own three children to spend most of their online learning days without the assistance of either their mother or father. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)
Donna Prak with her three children, from left, Leena Mae, 10, Rosalia, 11, and Sokhayne, 13, sitting on Leena Mae's bed at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Prak works as a nanny caring for two young children which leaves her own three children to spend most of their online learning days without the assistance of either their mother or father. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)

Prak’s husband works for the tech company Keysight Technologies and must go into work, though he gets home in the early afternoon and can spend time with their children. Prak said she’s envious of families who can afford tutors for their children, but she also sees the self-reliance her children are developing.

“We definitely don’t have the privilege of being a one-income family — part of that is where we choose to live,” Prak said, referring to the high cost of living in Sonoma County.

Systems break down

Before the pandemic, Tracy Kline had a demanding sales position at a local bank. She sat on two nonprofit boards and considered herself a success. She was a single parent to two boys.

Nicole Ruggeri and her six-year-old daughter, Naia, investigate a spring in a field near their home, before returning to Naia's first-grade distance learning Zoom class, near Sebastopol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Nicole Ruggeri and her six-year-old daughter, Naia, investigate a spring in a field near their home, before returning to Naia's first-grade distance learning Zoom class, near Sebastopol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

School closures broke down all the systems she had in place to keep her household running. Like many parents, she realized her children simply weren’t focusing enough on Zoom classes but fared far better when she was next to them and engaged.

So she left a job with a base salary, commission and health benefits for a commission-only job with more flexibility. Ultimately, she believes she landed in a better work environment, but there were real financial costs to the decision. And her sons are thriving in school and seem happy all around, she said.

“I made a conscious choice to put my kids’ emotional health, my emotional health and my sanity, first,” Kline said. “It was not a decision I took lightly.”

Now instead of being at meetings, she is often getting work done at the skate park while her sons play. It’s the new reality, not so bad, but not easy either.

“I literally sit here with my laptop in my car with a hot spot, and hope to God they don’t interrupt me,” Kline said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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