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Grandparents take up child care despite coronavirus risks
Mar 23

By BRIAN GORDON, The Asheville Citizen-Times

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ For Chandi Gilbertson of Canton, school closures create a dilemma.

Gilbertson, a mother of five, knows her husband's grandmother, Mary Phillips, remains vulnerable to COVID-19. Phillips is 82, well above the CDC's 65-year-old mark for those most at risk of severe coronavirus symptoms. However, Gilbertson and her husband must work, leaving Phillips a necessary child care provider.

``We're definitely worried about her contracting, especially from watching the kids while we're at work,'' said Gilbertson, an occupational therapist for Swain County Schools. ``But we don't have any other child care options. We have to, so we can pay our bills.''

Families across Western North Carolina face similar unenviable situations where older relatives are the best option to care for homebound children. According to Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, interim health director for Buncombe County, 40% of children in the United States are watched by grandparents when they're not in school or child care centers.

``People are trying to keep their elderly family member out of the mix,'' said Amy Barry, executive director of Buncombe Partnership for Children. Even as the virus drives more parents to work, their job responsibilities do not cease.

In normal circumstances, hiring private child care can be expensive. In the era of social distancing, finding an outside provider becomes arduous, regardless of economics. Organizations like the YMCA have opened up child care services for some, including Buncombe County essential workers and first responders. For other parents, balancing work and children becomes a tall task without support from older relatives.

WEIGHING A TOUGH CHOICE

Anita Silver-Barnwell of East Asheville and her mother-in-law, Ethel Barnwell, deliberated on the risks of child care. Anita, an accountant, has three sons. The youngest, John, lives with autism and requires extra attention to complete his remote learning lessons.

``We asked her, `Do you feel comfortable being here,''' Anita said of her 65-year-old mother-in-law's willingness to travel to watch her grandsons each day. ``My husband works at the VA and could potentially be exposed. We left the choice up to her.''

Ethel agreed to watch her grandchildren.

``As long as she's willing to be at risk to be around the kids, and as long as they don't do any further quarantines of anyone her age, she's able to come and be present,'' Anita said.

Anita monitors health recommendations and says she'll advise Ethel to stay home if any shelter in place or general quarantine orders go out for those over 65. In this case, Anita says its likely John would go without lessons. Anita started working at home herself but must perform her job duties during these school hours.

Anita at least will be physically present in the event Ethel can longer travel. Without grandparents and great-grandparents, some families may have no one else available.

``A lot of low wage workers are not workers that can work from home right now,'' said Vicki Meath executive director of Just Economics, an Asheville nonprofit that advocates for an equitable economy. ``While schools are closed and day cares are closed, other options aren't available.''


By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019