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Over 50% Of Chicago Families Are Struggling To Care For Children, New Poll Shows

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many families across the country say they're struggling to care for their children and help them adjust to changes brought by the pandemic. That's according to a new poll conducted by NPR, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about the toll the pandemic has taken on households in the largest U.S. cities.

WBEZ's Adriana Cardona-Maguigad tells us what those challenges look like for two Chicago families.

ADRIANA CARDONA-MAGUIGAD, BYLINE: All Jimmy Angel Melendez had to worry about before COVID-19 was getting good grades and finding the time to hang out with his friends after school. But life for Jimmy, a high school junior on the northwest side of Chicago, has changed drastically with the pandemic and now remote learning.

JIMMY ANGEL MELENDEZ: So I wake up. And immediately, I have my laptop next to me. It's charged. I join school - my first class.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Jimmy, who is 16, also watches over his 11-year-old brother. While their mom is working all day out of the house, they stay cooped up in their apartment.

JIMMY: I can't see any of my friends too much. And I'm really, you know, limited to my house. And it's really not motivating. And to be honest, it's kind of depressing for me.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: The NPR poll shows since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, 51% of parents surveyed in Chicago report serious problems caring for their kids. Many say they're struggling to help their children adjust to the changes.

MELISSA HERNANDEZ: I think as mom, like, I wish I could be here so I could monitor everything and see how I could be more involved with how things are going.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Melissa Hernandez is Jimmy's mom. She's busy all day doing outreach for an outpatient drug treatment facility. The thought of quitting her job has crossed her mind. But she can't.

HERNANDEZ: I still have bills to pay. I still have a light bill. I still have a gas bill. I still have rent. My children still need food in the house.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She worries about the impact this will have on her boys in the long run.

HERNANDEZ: My youngest - I see that he already developed a pattern on where being cooped up in his room has become the normal.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: And Jimmy - he's not the motivated teen he used to be. Experts in Chicago say this situation isn't easy on anyone. But for low-income families, single parents and hourly workers, it's harder.

VANESSA SCHWARTZ: You have parents that are working shift jobs. They may not know what their work schedule would be with enough time to try to get child care situated for them.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Vanessa Schwartz is with Metropolitan Family Services, a social services organization.

SCHWARTZ: Some of them are having to quit work to ensure that their children are in a safe space and being cared for appropriately.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Tania Cruz is a single mother with four children - three in elementary and one in high school. She's barely paying the bills and wants to get a job, but she has to be home to help her kids with school. One of them has autism.

TANIA CRUZ: It's really hard. I can't even go to a doctor. I can't do anything. Basically, I'm here in the house - stuck.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: She qualifies for the city's free, high-speed Internet program, though she's having serious problems with the connection. Forty percent of the Chicago parents surveyed in the NPR/Harvard poll in July said they also have serious problems or don't have high-speed Internet connection. Cruz spends each day wearing many hats - mom, teacher, tech support, therapist.

Hernandez and her sons hadn't give it up either. Jimmy drags his little brother out to the backyard to play basketball when they're done with class online. Hernandez calls them constantly while she's working, let's them order carryout and stays in touch with their teachers. And like many families out there, by the end of the day, everyone is exhausted.

For NPR News, I am Adriana Cardona-Maguigad in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRIK SCHWARZ'S "4011 LITER (THREE HANDS VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.