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Updated on: August 13, 2020

Healthcare Parents and the Pandemic

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Original story posted on: August 10, 2020

Frontline healthcare providers are being forced to make difficult decisions for their kids as schools open up.

As the nation’s schools are preparing various options for reopening, parents are dealing with a difficult decision of how to navigate their and their children’s future. For those who still have employment, parents must consider how they will maintain their job and adjust to the continued shutdown from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released their guidelines for helping parents, guardians, and caregivers weigh their options for in-person, online, and a hybrid model of schooling, although no option is ideal during a pandemic.

  • In-person schooling: Students will be able to engage and have social interaction with their friends; however, they will likely be wearing a mask and have social distancing requirements, posing more risk for possible virus spread.
  • Online schooling: Students will be home during the school day, managing their regular class load. This offers the least public risk, but means children will need to continue to be at home during the day, with access to the Internet.
  • Hybrid model: A combination of in-person and online schooling, which allows the school to clean the building or cohort students to allow for social distancing. This option creates some flexibility for parents and the schools; however, it still presents its own risks of virus spread.

Depending on the school district, across the country, parents are either facing the difficult decision on which school option is best, or the district is deciding for them – and some are delaying any in-person schooling because of the risk and recent pandemic surge. This means that many parents will be home with their children, helping them through their online educational experience. In Elizabeth Harris’s recent New York Times article, “It Was Just Too Much:” How Remote Learning is Breaking Parents (June 2020), she addressed the concerns of parents serving all roles of teacher, counselor, and cafeteria worker, all while trying to do their own jobs.

Ideally, we would want an employer that is supportive of this transition and allows for a remote work environment while children are home learning. Many employers across the country are meeting this demand to ensure we are limiting the virus spread. However, for our hospital and healthcare professionals, many of whom are deemed essential, this is simply not possible when hands-on care is required.

The very frontline workforce fighting COVID-19 – many of whom routinely spend an hour gowning in PPE and treating a nation that debated on wearing a mask, as many entered our emergency rooms, doctor’s offices, and hospitals – will again be faced with the challenge of how they support their own families and care for their children. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2019 average age of healthcare practitioners is 42.3, and the average age of healthcare support occupations such as nursing is 38.2. This puts our essential workforce at a high likelihood of having children at home. Our parenting dilemma is also compounded by the existing shortage of frontline healthcare workers, during a time when ICU and hospital beds are expanding. Joanne Spetz highlighted this concern in the Health Affairs article There Are Not Nearly Enough Nurses to Handle the Surge of Coronavirus Patients: Here’s How to Close the Gap Quickly (March 2020), which identified that hospital capacity was not due to limited beds, but a shortage of workers.

To plan for the COVID marathon and uncertainty in our schools, hospital administration will need a game plan. Hopefully, hospitals have started conversations with their workforce on how they are going to support staff, as parents either choose to keep their children at home, or the schools decide for them. 

Recommendations for hospital administration and human resource departments to consider:

  • Know your hospital employee demographics, and develop a contingency plan for another workforce shortage.
  • Communicate with your workforce and ensure that they have a plan in place for how they can come to work.
  • Reach out to your local community agencies for help with childcare.
  • Partner with your local school districts to ensure you understand the impact on your workforce and how you can collaborate during this pandemic.
  • Evaluate impacted staff and determine flexible scheduling from their previous roles.
  • Determine if employees can take temporary job assignments so they can be home during this time.
  • Consider a policy to allow an option for employees to furlough by choice, but maintain employment once their children can return to school again.
  • Ensure that your employees have emotional support as they struggle with the decisions they have to make at home.

By neglecting the impact on the essential workforce, hospitals could be putting their patients at further risk. Without a plan or understanding of how this will impact employees, hospitals can expect more call-outs, lower employee satisfaction, and higher turnover. It goes without saying that this will in turn impact the functionality of your hospital system, as you attempt to admit and discharge patients.

Programming Note: Listen to Tiffany Ferguson report this story live today during Talk Ten Tuesdays, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

Tiffany Ferguson, LMSW, ACM

Tiffany Ferguson is a graduate of Northern Arizona University and received her MSW at UCLA. After practicing as a social worker, she was tapped by administration at Northern Arizona Healthcare in Flagstaff, AZ to serve as Director of Community Case Management and quickly assumed leadership responsibility as System Director of Health and Care Management. Ms. Ferguson is ACM certified and is currently a consultant with Phoenix Medical Management, Inc.  

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