Should Parents Have to Choose between Keeping Federal Benefits or Keeping their Kids Safe from COVID-19?

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Should parents have to choose between keeping federal benefits to cope with COVID-19 or keeping their children at home if they’re worried that the local school isn’t doing enough to protect the children? That’s a problem parents face under a recent set of directives from the Labor Department regarding funding availability under both the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

To be fair to the officials who produced these directives, they appear to be trying to strike a reasonable balance by limiting benefits to people who have no choice but to homeschool their children. The end result nevertheless appears to be a perverse incentive—to get support parents may have to put their kids at risk of getting the virus.

Here’s the issue: Parents can receive benefits through either FFCRAor the CARES Act if they cannot work because they’re homeschooling their children while their kids’ regular school is closed due to COVID-19. They may access only one of the programs, though. Parents cannot double dip. And if their children’s’ school is open, the parents lose eligibility because they are then considered to be electing to homeschool their child.

That seems reasonable enough at first glance. But what if it doesn’t feel like a choice to the parent? Schools are experimenting with all sorts of different plans for reopening, from full classrooms to remote learning and all kinds of variations in between. If a parent decides her local school’s policy isn’t safe enough for her kids and opts to keep them at home, she forfeits any aid. That’s the case even if the school allows keeping the children at home as a safety option for concerned parents. So long as the school has in-person attendance as an option for students, parents must send their kids to the school to maintain benefits. That’s according to a pair of recent additions to the Labor Department’s guidance for the laws.

And if they attempt to claim benefits while keeping kids at home, that can land them in trouble too. “An individual who continues to claim PUA [pandemic unemployment assistance] benefits … despite the reopening of schools, may face an overpayment, as well as penalties for fraud and criminal prosecution.”

So, sorry, Johnny, but no you cannot stay at home. And if you do get a cough, just stay at school.