COVID-19 and Schools

In late March, a music teacher at Westover Hills Elementary School placed a message of support for students in her car window. With schools closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, teachers and faculty connected with kids through a caravan-style parade.

Parents claiming unemployment due to lack of child care will not be able to do so once the school year ends in June, Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Hess said Tuesday.

As COVID-19 continues to rock the economy and everyday life, Virginia’s unemployment claims have skyrocketed, reaching nearly 400,000 approved claims.

School closures and a limited supply of child care have posed a challenge for parents who can’t work remotely, leading some to file for unemployment.

“That is a reason for remaining on unemployment,” Hess told lawmakers during a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.

Once the school year ends, child care will no longer be a reason to stay on unemployment.

Currently, Virginians can receive up to $378 in weekly compensation from the state, which will have paid out about $2 billion in aid by the end of June, Hess said. State unemployment insurance is being supplemented by federal emergency assistance to the tune of $600 per week under the CARES Act.

Hess was questioned by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who said that summer camp availability will be likely be limited as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the summer, creating an impossible predicament for parents.

Currently, the state is encouraging child care providers to prioritize working parents. Child care providers that remain open are operating under strict restrictions, including limits on the number of children who can be grouped together.

As the summer approaches, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has yet to issue guidance for how summer camps might be able to operate.

“I hope that is being factored into any decision about no unemployment compensation for lack of child care during the summer,” McClellan said Tuesday.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement that the state is working on summer camp guidance, which it expects to release by the end of the month.

Asked whether Northam is considering allowing unemployment claims due to lack of child care beyond the end of the school year, Yarmosky said: “Virginia is bound by federal unemployment guidelines, which dictate that an individual’s lack of child care during the summer does not alone qualify them for unemployment benefits. However, the Northam administration is working closely with VEC to potentially provide some flexibility through the appeals process.”

McClellan was among the members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who urged Northam to delay the beginning of the state’s reopening, arguing that low-income workers, including many people of color, would be disproportionately affected by reopening too soon. An adequate supply of child care for all workers is among the uncertainties.

“You literally are forced to risk your family’s health and safety, and your job,” McClellan said in a recent interview. “It is disproportionately people of color and women who are stuck there.”

Last week, Yarmosky said the state’s child care providers were reporting available capacity to meet the needs of Phase One of reopening. Yarmosky directed anyone in need of child care to visit www.vachildcare.com.

Also Tuesday, in a presentation to lawmakers, Hess said the strain on the state’s fund for paying out unemployment claims remains “significant.”

“The VEC anticipates that we will need to borrow to pay benefits during the third quarter,” said Hess, referring to the stretch from July through September.

“Unless Congress acts, these funds will have to be repaid by employers during the first quarter of 2021,” Hess said.

Asked by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, about the potential tax increase to employers, Hess said: “It is going to be a significant impact if Congress does not act.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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