April 5, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Starting this week, you will not be eligible for travel vouchers that allow you to change flight plans without rebooking fees when you book travel on American Airlines. Delta Air Lines goes back to the old way of doing things next month. If you have travel vouchers from the last year, you have until the end of 2021 to use them.

United Airlines is also starting change fees back up again in May but is giving customers until April 2022 to use the ones they already hold.

NBC News says Americans hold about 21 million vouchers worth $10 billion:

“For those consumers who have unused vouchers, it’s critical that they stay on top of this and be aware of the expiration dates,” said William McGee, aviation adviser to Consumer Reports, which logged more than 700 consumer complaints about vouchers and refunds in less than a week.

To help travelers figure out their options, McGee reviewed policies being offered by 10 U.S. carriers and found that the best and most transparent policy was from Allegiant Air, which set the expiration for its travel vouchers at two years from the initial date of purchase. Other policies are “confusing, and the expirations can vary greatly based on date of booking, date of travel, date of cancellation,” McGee said.

Current rules and policies for the other nine airlines can be found here: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines.

Remember that as you use your vouchers, you may find that the voucher value won’t cover the cost of your new flight since you probably bought your old ticket in 2020, when few people were flying. Now, travel is picking up, and prices are on the rise.

One other thing worth noting: United was one of the first airlines to go to the “no change fee” model for those with vouchers. United is now offering a new way to change flights and, in some cases, not pay a change fee, but the traveler-centric website One Mile At A Time explains some complicated details that could cost you plenty if you don’t pay attention:

The way the no change fee policy works is that if you book an eligible ticket and no longer want to travel, you can cancel your itinerary and then apply the value of the ticket towards future travel. To be clear, tickets aren’t fully refundable to the original form of payment, but rather you get a voucher towards a future ticket.

But there has been one major catch with United’s policy up until recently — if you rebooked your itinerary and your new flight cost less than the original one, you lost the fare difference. This was in contrast to the policies at American and Delta, which issue residual vouchers when you change tickets.

Just to give an example, say you booked a $500 ticket, you canceled it, and then you wanted to use your credit towards a $200 flight:

  • At United you could use that credit towards the flight, but you’d “lose” $300 in value
  • At American and Delta you could use that credit towards the flight, and then you’d be issued an additional $300 voucher to use towards future travel

Well, United Airlines has finally updated its policy in this regard — United Airlines will now issue a voucher if the itinerary you rebook on costs less than your original itinerary. There are some things to note:

  • This feature is only available when booking directly with United, and it’s initially only available through United’s app and by phone.
  • The voucher is valid for a year from the original date of issue, and is non-transferable.

Travel website The Points Guy says airline phone lines are so busy with people trying to use their vouchers that wait times are way up. In some cases, you may be on hold for hours.

Child care is in a COVID-19 crisis

In this Thursday Aug. 27, 2020 photo, assistant director Tammy Cavanaugh, left, takes the temperature of Maverick Barbera has he is held by his mother Katrina Meli at Educational Playcare, in Glastonbury, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

America’s child care industry — and it is an industry — is in crisis. When parents pulled children out of child care a year ago, day care centers struggled with increased operating costs and reduced capacity, all pandemic-related.

A December survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found 56% of centers were losing money every day they stayed open. The same study found:

  • Nearly half of survey respondents reported that they know of multiple centers or homes in their community that have closed permanently. This percentage rests at 42% for those who are minority-owned businesses and rises to 56% for those who describe their community as suburban.
  • Child care providers, who are already paid so little that nearly half live in families accessing public benefits, are doing everything they can to hold their programs together: taking on debt, spending down savings, cutting costs and sacrificing their own already-meager incomes.
  • 42% of respondents reported taking on debt for their programs by putting supplies or other items on their own personal credit cards.
  • 39% reported trying to meet families’ needs by dipping into their own personal savings accounts.
  • 60% work in programs that have tried to reduce their expenses by engaging in layoffs, furloughs, and/or pay cuts.
  • 44% of respondents are confronting so much uncertainty that they are unable to say how much longer they will be able to stay open.

The New York Times points out that in a diminished economy, day cares usually feel the pain. But this is worse:

About 360,000 child-care jobs simply vanished between February and April last year because of pandemic lockdowns, said Jessica Brown, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina. Employment in the industry in February this year was down by 16 percent compared with a year ago. In contrast, overall employment fell by 6 percent in that same time.

This scarring is likely to outlast the pandemic. “When the economy does worse, the child-care industry declines,” said Professor Brown, who published a study on the industry in January, “but when the economy improves, the child-care industry doesn’t recover as quickly as the rest of the economy.”

Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group for the day care industry, says more than one of 10 day cares remained closed at the end of December. Almost one-fifth of the day cares in southern states were closed. Child Care Aware says:

All of this sounds like good news, right? It looks like childcare is on track to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. Although childcare providers have been reopening, there is a lot of evidence that they are suffering. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) surveyed childcare providers nationally toward the end of 2020 and found that 42% reported taking on debt in order to keep their programs afloat.

We at CCAoA have also heard numerous stories of providers who are open but are seeing higher costs and lower attendance. A family childcare provider in Virginia reported that she has not had a break since March, but her attendance is still well below capacity. A childcare center director in California states that families are not ready to return, and she is struggling to pay staff members. These stories are still common almost a year into this pandemic.

Even where the centers are open, attendance is down.

The Department of Education says around 60% of dual-income households use day care outside of a family member or nanny. The question is once parents go back to work away from home, will the day cares they once depended on still be around? The Times adds:

“The biggest fear is that the supply’s not going to be there when the market’s ready to recover,” said Rhian Allvin, chief executive of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an advocacy organization. By the time a center is back up and running, parents may have made other arrangements — whether that’s grandparents stepping in or mothers quitting their jobs — trapping many day-care centers in a vicious cycle.

A couple of COVID-19 relief programs may help. The Paycheck Protection Program loans helped centers cover payroll costs. The newest stimulus plan that Congress passed includes $25 billion to help child care providers and the Biden administration’s just-released infrastructure plan would send an additional $25 billion to build and upgrade day care centers. States like Colorado and Pennsylvania have added their own support for day cares.

COVID-19 discourages people from entering teaching

I can certainly understand why the pandemic is turning college students away from choosing teaching as a profession. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education says one in five undergrad programs has seen a drop in enrollments this year. Teach for America, which recruits new grads to work in low-income, high-need schools is also having a problem recruiting new teachers.

The New York Times dove behind the numbers to find out why:

Many program leaders believe enrollment fell because of the perceived hazards posed by in-person teaching and the difficulties of remote learning, combined with longstanding frustrations over low pay compared with professions that require similar levels of education. (The national average for a public-school teacher’s salary is roughly $61,000.) Some are hopeful that enrollment will return to its prepandemic level as vaccines roll out and schools resume in-person learning.

But the challenges in teacher recruitment and retention run deeper: The number of education degrees conferred by American colleges and universities dropped by 22 percent between 2006 and 2019, despite an overall increase in U.S. university graduates, stoking concerns about a future teacher shortage.

Some of the problems are more logistical. Students have not been able to get into classrooms to do in-person teaching and the prospect of teaching remotely is not why they wanted to get into the profession. New recruits may also be hearing the discouraging voices of educators who have plowed through a pandemic year. Again, the Times reports:

In a recent national study of teachers by the RAND Corporation, one quarter of respondents said that they were likely to leave the profession before the end of the school year. Nearly half of public schoolteachers who stopped teaching after March 2020 but before their scheduled retirements did so because of Covid-19.

A good time to be a documentary producer

Even if it is not such a great time to run a day care center or be a teacher, producing documentaries about them may be profitable. It turns out there is a big new demand for documentaries as we stay home from the movie theaters. Axios reports:

Documentaries were the fastest-growing genre on streaming last year, as more news companies leaned into licensing deals with streamers around current events.

Data from Parrot Analytics shows that there’s an appetite for news-adjacent content on-demand.

“While current events have always been fodder for entertainment programming, we’ve seen a rise in consumers’ appetite for content based on real-world events,” says Jana Winograde, President of Entertainment at Showtime Networks Inc.

Parrot Analytics reports the demand for documentaries is way outpacing the supply. From January to March 2021, the number of documentary series increased by 63%. But demand grew by 142%.

The J&J shot is especially useful for the homeless population

Homeless shelters are finding that the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is especially useful since it does not require a second visit to fully immunize a population that already has a greater vulnerability to the virus. Some counties plan to hold the Johnson & Johnson vaccines for clinics that they hope will attract people who are experiencing homelessness.

Food banks hope you won’t tire of reporting about hunger

A woman holds up a “Thank You” sign as she gets her car loaded with groceries at a food bank distribution by the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

If you compare the last three months of 2020 to the same period in 2019, the food banks that Feeding America supplies collected and distributed 42% more year over year. That is a stunning one-year jump. In part, it is because journalists told the stories of need and volunteerism, and the need today is still great.

The Associated Press is producing a special series on hunger in America and reports:

Katie Fitzgerald, Feeding America’s chief operating officer, said the network’s members are still seeing demand above pre-pandemic levels, although final numbers for this year’s first quarter aren’t yet available. Fitzgerald said she expects the food banks will collectively distribute the equivalent of 6 billion meals this year, about the same amount they gave away last year and far above the 4.2 billion meals given out in 2019.

“A lot of families who were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic were already experiencing food insecurity,” she said. “Now, the level of insecurity for some has grown more extreme, when you see real hunger — mom skipping meals to feed the family.”

America’s yearlong food insecurity crisis has been felt especially sharply by children who lost easy access to free school meals, and older adults who struggled to get groceries or meals at senior centers because they worried about contracting the virus.

Feeding America’s data shows:

  • Due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 42 million people may experience food insecurity, including a potential 13 million children.
  • The pandemic has most impacted families that were already facing hunger or one paycheck away from facing hunger.
  • Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity. Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 million children live in food-insecure households.
  • Every community in the country is home to families who face hunger including rural and suburban communities.
  • Many households that experience food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and need to rely on their local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for support.

Click on the map to explore state data (Feeding America)

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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