Like hundreds of thousands of other parents in Washington state, Chentelle Hudson is bracing for the next big financial impact from the pandemic. 

Hudson’s two children, ages 10 and 14, start online classes through the Edmonds School District next month. Although the teenager can probably handle the classes on her own, Hudson says, the 10-year-old needs extra help with math and writing. That means Hudson, 32, probably will be cutting back her hours as a restaurant night manager and relying more on her husband’s income so she can get up early to supervise lessons at their Lynnwood apartment.

Hudson has no doubts about her choice. “My kids’ learning is more important than me coming to work,” she says. But the family is bracing for a financial hit. “It’s just not feasible to have somebody not working,” Hudson says. “I just don’t know what it looks like for us right now. It’s so stressful.”

It’s a dilemma that is probably familiar to many parents as they prepare for what is almost certain to be a chaotic and financially challenging K-12 school experience this fall.

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to go back to school during a pandemic.

Roughly 29% of Washington’s 3.9 million-person workforce is made up of parents of school-age kids, according to U.S. Census data. Even excluding households with a stay-at-home parent (who, in theory, is available to manage remote schooling), a fifth of the state’s workforce will be “significantly affected by disruptions in school and child care” this fall due to COVID-19, says Chris Mefford, president of Community Attributes, a Seattle-based consulting firm.  

In King, Snohomish and Pierce counties alone, that means roughly 424,000 parents face some degree of disruption starting this fall, Community Attributes’ analysis shows.

The full costs of that disruption will be substantial. Beyond the immediate expense of extra child care or at-home classroom supplies and technology, economists say, the combined effects of lost incomes, reduced productivity and eroded job skills could be a drag on the state’s economy for years. In the meantime, some fear it may slow the pace of the recovery.

And, as was the case last spring, when COVID-19 first disrupted schools in Washington, the financial burdens of a school year conducted online will fall most heavily on those who were at a disadvantage even before the pandemic — notably women and lower-skilled, lower-wage workers who typically lack the option of working from home.

“Any big source of [preexisting] inequality, it’s likely that COVID is going to magnify it,” says Rachel Heath, an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington who focuses on workforce issues. 

Forecasting the full economic impacts of an online school year is difficult, in part because the situation is so unprecedented and its duration is unknown (some districts are planning to return to classroom lessons at the midpoint of the school year). But economists and other experts are paying close attention to several key metrics. 

One is labor hours, which will almost certainly fall, along with income, as many parents feel pressured to cut back on work to devote more time to remote schooling. Although many parents dealt with the school closures last spring by “draining their vacation” time or taking other short-term measures, Mefford says, most are preparing for much deeper changes.

Andrea Reed of West Seattle is dropping from full time to three days a week at her human resources job so she can supervise her kids’ online courses two days a week (other family will cover the other three days), in part, because her husband’s job has less flexibility. Though the family can absorb the lost income in the short term, “it’s going to hit the bottom line for sure,” Reed says, adding that the family will probably put less in savings or the kids’ college accounts.  

Some of that lost income can be made up with paid leave. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), for example, can provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave, at two-thirds an employee’s regular pay, if they need to stop or reduce work to take care of kids or monitor schooling due to COVID-19. Some companies also have paid leave options. Microsoft, for example, is offering 12 weeks for parents with pandemic-related school challenges.

But such relief is hardly universal. FFCRA, for example, applies only to companies with fewer than 500 employees, while companies with fewer than 50 can get exemptions.

And paid leave is only a short-term fix in any case. Reed says her FFCRA leave will run out in November — and, like many other parents, she expects classes will be online at least the rest of the school year. “I have no illusions that school will be in person in 2020-2021,” Reed says. “I’m hoping for fall of ’21.”

Even when parents are still on the clock, having kids in remote learning could hurt how much work parents can actually do.

Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University who has closely studied the work-from-home model, expects a decline in productivity for work-from-home parents who also have kids learning remotely at home.

Bloom’s research shows that the at-home worker is normally 13% more productive than an in-office worker. But that gain is largely erased when school-age children are in the mix, says Bloom, who thinks productivity could fall as much as 10% in that scenario. “Having kids at home is a huge blow to individual productivity,” he says, adding that the loss is something he “can personally attest to with four kids at home aged 5 to 17.”

Part of that productivity loss stems from the distraction kids can cause, says Mefford. But another factor, he adds, will be the burnout that may result as parents try to supervise kids during school hours while trying to complete their own work in the evenings or on weekends. 

“It’s definitely been challenging,” says Lauren Rasmussen, a Seattle-area attorney who, along with her husband, had to completely reorganize routines to balance their kids’ at-home schooling with their own demanding professional lives. That has meant getting up earlier, staying up later and moving all weekday chores and errands to the weekend. “We are really looking forward to in-person school restarting as soon as possible,” she says.

These dilemmas can be even more painful for single parents, who make up nearly 15% of all parents with school-aged kids in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Take the case of the single dad who has cut back his engineering work at Amazon to 20 hours a week so he can help his son during school hours. Because he also cares for his son in the evenings, those 20 work hours will come mainly on weekends, when his son stays with other family members — a routine that he fears will be “a bit of a struggle.”

Amazon is “trying to be as flexible and accommodating as possible,” says the engineer, who, like several people interviewed for this story, didn’t want to be identified out of concern it could affect their work situation. “But still, I worry that as this drags on, and as productivity gets worse, do I get to keep my working-from-home job?”

An Amazon spokesperson said there is no specific company policy for employees balancing work with children’s remote learning, but added that any employee can talk to their manager about reduced hours or alternative schedules.

The Amazon engineer acknowledges that he has the financial resources to handle reduced hours and other costs of an online school year. That’s true for many better-off parents, who can often afford arrangements such as all-day supervised care or “learning pods” with other families.

But those options may be out of reach for lower-income families. Several workers in lower-wage jobs that can’t be done from home indicated they felt pressure to choose between adequately supervising their kids’ schooling and keeping enough hours to cover the bills. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says a Seattle grocery store employee, who declined to be identified to avoid tensions with management.

Such choices underscore how an online school year will only widen “that wedge between the haves and have-nots,” Mefford says.

It will also deepen gender disparities in the workforce, worries Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a regional economist with the state Employment Security Department who covers the Seattle area.

Even without the remote schooling issue, women had borne the brunt of pandemic-related layoffs, which fell disproportionately on sectors such as accommodation and food service, where women are overrepresented, Vance-Sherman says.

And because those female-dominated sectors tend to be lower-paying than male-dominated ones — and because women face “an implicit cultural expectation that favors women interrupting their careers to care for children” — many working couples will likely decide that the woman of the household should reduce her work hours or quit altogether during the coming school year, Vance-Sherman says. “So every angle you look at in this, it tells that self-reinforcing story,” she says.

As one Seattle-area office administrator put it, letting her higher-earning husband keep working while she stepped back from work to supervise the kids was the “financially correct decision to make…. But it feels like I’m getting pushed to the side.” She asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Such disparities can have long-term effects, economists say. Extended absences from the workforce can lead to a significant loss of future income, Vance-Sherman says. “The longer you’re out of the workforce, the longer it takes to get back into the workforce,” she says.

In the meantime, the broader loss of labor hours and productivity could slow the rate at which the economy comes back from COVID-19.

Bloom, the Stanford economist, calculates that 57% of all wages in the U.S. come from households with kids 18 or under, in part because high-earners are more likely to have kids. So anything that interferes with parents’ productivity or labor hours “is a recipe for economic malaise,” Bloom says.

Economists say these scenarios could easily change depending on government policy or other factors. Extending paid leave, for example, or adding funds for day care could make a huge difference for families.

But as with other aspects of the pandemic, the biggest unknown is the virus itself.

Dan and Megan Torres of Seattle feel fortunate to have found places for their sons, Miles, 6, and Devin, 9, in an all-day day care program being run at their elementary school, one of up to 68 that Seattle Public Schools is providing space for this year.

But the cost — $80 per child per day — means they’ll probably be saving less for things like the kids’ college. And even then, there is no guarantee the day care arrangement — or the couple’s ability to work from home — won’t be upended if a day care employee or another student contracts COVID-19.

“It’s one infection away from closing down and us having to deal with that,” Dan says. “We call it a house of cards, because there’s no Plan B.”