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.
“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.
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.
“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.