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story.lead_photo.caption Stirling Elementary second grader Elyse Staats, 7, does her classes virtually while her mother, Angela Staats, works at Abba Equipment, Inc. in Dania Beach on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If you need office supplies from Abba Equipment in Dania Beach, Florida, Riley McElwee will be glad to help you.

The kindergartner is learning virtually at her dad's workplace, where he's operations manager. She runs out of his office periodically to ask him for help on the computer, even if he's unloading a trailer full of newly arrived bubble wrap.

"For the most part, everyone understands," McElwee said of his customers. "They either know what's going on or they're in the same situation."

Seven-year-old Elyse Staats, the daughter of office manager Angela Staats, is also virtual learning on the property. So are McElwee's two teenage daughters.

The families are among the many who have had to adjust their work lives to accommodate their children who are learning remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Public school buildings in some parts of the country may be closed, but parents still have to work, forcing them to come up with creative ways to get their jobs done at the same time they make sure their children are getting an education.

A few weeks in to this grand educational experiment, reports are mixed. Many families have had technology issues, while others are loving their new teachers, who underwent extensive training over the summer.

For parents monitoring their students' daily lessons, it hasn't been easy.

Jackie Brown, a paralegal from Coconut Creek, is working from home with her daughters, Grace, 13, and Madison, 11, who are getting virtual lessons from Lyons Middle School in South Florida.

"It's been very challenging," Brown said. "I went in to check if my daughter was doing her work, and she was on her bed with her iPad. It takes away from my work to stop and have to check on them."

That's when Brown moved her own laptop and her daughters' into the same room so she could make sure they were paying attention to their classes. She said she loses almost three hours a day helping them with computer issues. She starts her own work early or finishes late at night to make up for lost time.

Fortunately, it's all OK with her boss.

"It hasn't affected her productivity at all," said Nancy Colman, an attorney in Boca Raton.

A productivity boom

The pandemic is actually making American workers more productive, to the surprise of many employers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Aug. 14 that business productivity increased 7.3 percent in the second quarter of 2020 as the virus was peaking, even though hours worked fell 43 percent.

The virus has shown employers they can trust their workers to get their jobs done with less supervision, and the employees will be more engaged, connected and effective, said Katya Matusevich, associate human resources professor at Barry University in Miami Shores.

"It's a complete transformation of the workplace," she said. "The priority for employers has become taking care of their employees. The blending of family and work has become normal. Employees have started learning about each other, seeing each other's homes. It's made organizations become more human and compassionate."

Not everyone can work from home, of course. Hospital workers, baristas, security guards and cashiers have to go to their work sites each day. But many of their employers are also finding ways to accommodate them.

Dominic Aloma said the 10 office workers at his Davie-based agency, United Care Home Health Services, have been working from home, while his nurses have adjusted their hours to work around their children. The system is imperfect, but working out better than he expected, he said.

"It's been tough with communication. You want your case managers and your registered nurses together in the same room," Aloma said. "But it has opened our eyes that you can be efficient if you're not in the office. You can have an effective meeting on Zoom."

Some can't work remotely

Not everyone can do their work through Zoom or be home to educate their children. Melissa Ramkissoon, a nurse, said her job in the operating room of a local hospital prevents her from supervising the online schooling of her 6-year-old, Jasmine, and 3-year-old, Dylan.

Her cousin often helps her out, as her husband, Raul, travels out of town for work several days a week. But her mind is often at home, where her daughter struggles to master computer skills.

"I am texting with them all day from the (hospital) bathroom," Ramkissoon said. "I call them on every break."

She said she has never considered taking a leave of absence from work as the hospital needs workers to assist with coronavirus patients.

"It's looked down upon to take time off," she said. "I can't leave when the country needs us most."

While many employees don't have a choice, a large number who are now working from home are hesitant to return to the workplace. Fears of the virus persist despite some signs of a downturn.

A survey of employees at Citrix, a Fort Lauderdale-based software company with more than 4,400 employees, showed 46 percent don't want to return until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.

When they do go back, it will be a different office in many ways, said Donna Kimmel, Citrix's chief people officer. Employees whose children are learning remotely or have a vulnerable family member will want to continue their jobs remotely. And social interactions in the office will be completely altered, she said.

"Going to the office used to be fun — you could see your colleagues and have those water cooler conversations," Kimmel said. "Now you're going to have to wear (masks) and maintain social distancing with no access to gyms and cafeterias. And a lot of people just don't want to deal with that."

Robin Bresky, an attorney in Boca Raton, is among numerous employers keeping parenting in mind as they design long-term ways to communicate remotely. She has allowed several employees to work from home; one is taking a vacation day every Friday to help with his child's online education.

"If you want good people, you have to create a better scenario for them," said Bresky, who advocates for gender equality in the legal profession. "I'm hopeful we're about to see lots of changes in the workplace. Maybe that's the silver lining in all this."

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