School closurers across South Florida have left parents scrambling.
School closurers across South Florida have left parents scrambling.

With Schools Closed After Irma, South Florida Parents Struggle to Work

Ask Angela Dazzio-Martinez how she's doing in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and she'll offer a rueful laugh.

"I'm not even sure what time I got to work this morning," she admits.

The mother of a 4-year-old girl, Dazzio-Martinez returned to her Boca Raton home Tuesday after evacuating twice to escape the storm, once to her parents' place in Redington Beach, near St. Petersburg, and again when that area was under mandatory evacuation, to Tampa. On Tuesday, she braved the traffic back to Boca and returned to a home without electricity and a school district shuttered for the rest of the week. With her husband, she searched for hours to find a local motel where her family could stay comfortably.

Then she was called into work.

Dazzio-Martinez has two jobs, a 9-to-5 at the Florida Department of Revenue and part-time for Verizon, where she works in cellular sales. On normal days, she wakes early to prepare her daughter for school, dressing her in her uniform and feeding her breakfast before her husband drops her off on his way to his job. Dazzio-Martinez picks her daughter up after her shift ends at 5 p.m., while her husband is still working. "She's usually the last one to get picked up at daycare," she says.

But the past week has been anything but normal. Without schools open, Dazzio-Martinez has few options for childcare. "We have no family. This is a very transient area. A lot of people have no family nearby," she says. "Some camps are open, but it's expensive. These camps are not cheap."

What she does have, she says, is a babysitter she trusts, who has looked after her daughter for years. There's just one problem.

"They don't have power. But somebody has to watch [my daughter]," she says. "I trust [the babysitter]. If there were any kind of safety concern, she would leave, she would call us. But I'm not happy they don't have power. We have no choice. What are we going to do?"

Dazzio-Martinez is one of thousands of parents across South Florida struggling while schools are closed. Miami-Dade is the fifth-largest school district in the nation, enrolling more than 350,000 students; Broward, with more than 260,000 students, ranks sixth; and Palm Beach County schools add nearly 200,000 more. All three school districts will remain closed until Monday, September 18.

School closures are an understandable and necessary precaution; teachers and staff need time to recover after disasters such as hurricanes, and schools don't want to encourage parents and children to travel to schools in unsafe conditions. But in South Florida, home to some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, many parents can't afford to miss work to care for their kids.

It's difficult to say exactly how many South Florida parents rely on public schools so they can work. But in 2012, the Pew Research Center estimated that 60 percent of all American households with school-age children have dual incomes. The average number of kids per household in Florida is 1.80. That could mean hundreds of thousands of local parents have been faced with choosing between earning a living and caring for their children this week.

Many daycares and private schools also closed in the days before and after Irma, leaving more families without childcare. Some have policies that mandate they follow the lead of their local school district in times of emergencies.

Dazzio-Martinez counts herself lucky. "I feel really bad for the single parents," she says, noting that some daycares and private schools still charge tuition despite being closed for the week. "To pay tuition plus a babysitter or camp?" And consider hourly employees, she continues, who won't be paid for time missed while their place of work was closed during the storm. "To be paying daycare, plus babysitters, and not getting paid — I feel for those people."

Worse, employees in Florida can be legally penalized at work or even fired for not showing up due to a natural disaster. That's what Cassandra Miranda, a single mother of five living in Pompano Beach, worries about.

Miranda's children range in age from 3 to 18. Her 3-year-old is in a full leg cast following an accident. Miranda relies on public school and daycare while she works at a medical call center in Delray Beach. Since Irma hit, she has spent long days without power in her home, with "no cell phone, nothing to keep us occupied in the heat." As she spoke to New Times by phone, spotty service often garbled her voice with static.

But Miranda's bigger concern is keeping her job. "My workplace does not allow you to bring the children in with you, nor do they care that I have no power in my home for the last four days, with only being able to prepare meals on my outside grill for them," she says. "It is a writeup if you call out for any reason."

Miranda says she's been with the company for two years, but it has maintained its rigid stance. She's reluctant to leave the kids home alone, even though some are old enough to babysit, because of the infrastructure failings Irma left behind. "I can't leave them in the heat. What if something were to happen? They can't just pick up the phone and call me," she says.

In the meantime, she has relied on co-workers to help take care of her children. It's a stressful situation, she says.

She, like many other parents across South Florida, is "just figuring it out day by day."

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