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With schools out, grandparents step into the child-care breach — but is it safe?

Older family members are taking on child-care duties because parents have to work during the coronavirus public health crisis.

Recently retired grandparent Terri Barhite and her grandson Freddy visited some horses next door to her home. She and her husband Jim are baby-sitting for their 15-month-old grandson at their Hopkinton home while their son or daughter-in-law works upstairs in their spare bedroom.
Recently retired grandparent Terri Barhite and her grandson Freddy visited some horses next door to her home. She and her husband Jim are baby-sitting for their 15-month-old grandson at their Hopkinton home while their son or daughter-in-law works upstairs in their spare bedroom.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Soraya Harley has always helped look after her grandchildren, but never like this.

Now that the Boston Public Schools are closed until April 27, Harley has gone from a steady caregiver to a critical support. She’s watching three of her grandchildren for the foreseeable future while her adult children continue to work, though doing so could put her at higher risk for the virus.

“They’ll probably be with me tomorrow, the next day, and every day their parents have to work,” said Harley, 58, who added she didn’t know if the kids would go home at the end of the week. “I don’t know if I should even let them go home on the weekend. . . . but I know while they’re in the house, they’re staying in the house.”

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Health experts have been clear that older adults are at the greatest risk as the novel coronavirus carves its punishing course across the Commonwealth. But now that Governor Charlie Baker has ordered the state’s schools to close, roughly 1 million school-aged children are home, forcing grandparents across the economic spectrum to make excruciating decisions. Should they isolate themselves from loved ones for fear of infection? Or should they step into the child-care breach, helping look after grandchildren as their parents continue to work?

For many low-income families, relying on grandparents is less a choice than it is a necessity: Their adult children must work outside the house, and there’s nowhere else to turn for child care.

Soraya Harley watched three of her grandchildren for the foreseeable future while her adult children continue to work.
Soraya Harley watched three of her grandchildren for the foreseeable future while her adult children continue to work.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“Burdens are likely to be greatest in families that are already in greatest need,” said Jeffrey Stokes, assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Public health experts say there are risks to grandparents who step in to help.

“It’s important for everyone in the household to be practicing social distancing,” said Eleanor Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “It looks like kids might experience few symptoms themselves but still spread the virus, and grandparents are potentially at higher risk.”

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Murray said the concern is greatest for grandparents in their 70s and 80s and recommended that parents turn to younger aunts and uncles rather than grandparents if that’s possible. Another option, she said, is having the grandchildren move in with the grandparents if the adult children work outside the home and come into contact with others. Otherwise, she said, “the kids could get infected by their parents and infect their grandparents."

If none of that is possible, she said, families must take extreme precautions, washing hands frequently, not touching surfaces, and staying 6 feet away from other people when they leave the home.

Harley, who earlier this week braved public transportation to get provisions at a local food pantry, is doing her best to stay healthy while helping out.

She’d already disinfected her Roxbury home with bleach and Lysol, and she’s making sure her three grandchildren, ages 7 to 10, wash their hands and use sanitizer.

“Who knows what was going on in their school before they decided to close it?” she asked. Still, she said, “I’m not going to stay away from them.”

Meanwhile, Mary Greene is looking after her 8-year-old granddaughter and 2-year-old grandniece while their parents are working for the MBTA and in the medical field. Greene is 70 and diabetic, and therefore in two categories of elevated risk for serious complications if she’s infected. But she said she isn’t concerned; she’s making sure the kids’ hands and faces are clean, and she rarely gets sick.

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“I feel secure, but I only deal with my family, and I know they’ve been protecting themselves,” said Greene. "Nobody in my house [is] running a fever.”

While the novel coronavirus may be hitting low-income families especially hard, the outbreak is stressing families all along the economic scale.

In Hopkinton, grandparents Terri and Jim Barhite have been pressed into duty caring for their 15-month-old grandson Freddy after his Boston day care abruptly closed on Monday, and his parents were told to work remotely.

Now, their son and daughter-in-law are alternating their routines. One works from their Roslindale home each day and the other drives Freddy out to Hopkinton and works upstairs in a spare bedroom-turned-office. Downstairs, Terri, 64, and Jim, 65, keep the toddler busy with books, wooden blocks, and a Little Tykes car.

“We’re the day care now,” Terri Barhite said. “We’re reading Sesame Street.”

She said they’re being as careful as they can. Their son and daughter-in-law are working remotely, so they’re coming into contact with relatively few people. But they still have to go out to buy groceries.

“I pretty much bleach everything down every night when they leave,” she said. “We have hand sanitizer and try to stay away from people.”

While the new arrangement was unexpected, the timing was good for the Barhites, who retired recently and find grandparenting gives them a purpose during this time of uncertainty.

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"We're all cooped up now," Terri said. "So it's a lot of fun to have a little one around the house."

Other grandparents have had to make the agonizing choice to keep their distance from their grandchildren.

Jamaica Plain retiree Elsa Bengel said she and her husband Jim, both 75, will wait two weeks before resuming grandparenting duties. Their three grandchildren were scheduled to fly home from a vacation this week, and she’s concerned they may become exposed while traveling.

“They’re going to want to see Grammy and Papa,” Elsa said. “We usually see each other every week, and I’m always available to baby-sit as needed. We’re in that older age group. And I know what happens to people who do get the virus, and I don’t want that to happen to us.”

So for the time being, the swing set in their backyard will remain unoccupied.

Bengel said she’ll have to FaceTime with her 8-year-old granddaughter. But that might not work as well with her other granddaughter, who’s 4, or her grandson, who’s 3. “The young ones, they can only FaceTime for about 15 seconds, and then they’ve left the screen.”

In Roxbury, Harley was considering a different set of concerns: How would she manage her own stress? How was she going to stay focused on the positive? And how was she going to cope with three young kids in the house?

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“I don’t want to show them what I’m really feeling inside, because that might mess with them,” said Harley, who has found solace in prayer. “I won’t let them see me stressed.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay. Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.