As kids go back to school online and the child care crisis spirals out of control, it's never been more apparent that parents need more structural support.

By Maressa Brown
September 11, 2020
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For most families around the country, the back-to-school season looks entirely different than it has in the past. In 46 states, kids will be engaging with their teachers via virtual or hybrid learning. And yet, at least 15 states have no free child care options, reports The Atlantic, leaving working parents to struggle with juggling their work and children's well-being in an unprecedented, stressful way. In fact, a new report by NPR found that 59 percent of parents across the U.S. said they are having "serious" problems caring for children. Here's what you need to know.

Parents' Options Are Pricey or Risky

During the pandemic, 54 of parents have found it difficult to find child care that fits in their budget, according to an August survey from Morning Consult and the Bipartisan Policy Center, and finding care was especially challenging for those with lower incomes, with 72 percent of parents with an income less than $50,000 expressing some degree of difficulty.

Parents of younger children, who might have otherwise relied on day cares, are facing concerns and closures. Nationally, 18 percent of child care centers and 9 percent of family child care homes remain closed, according to a July report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). But even if centers are open, parents are torn about safety. The report noted that 86 percent of respondents said they sometimes or often hear from families who want child care to be open so they can go back to work, but 72 percent of respondents simultaneously said they sometimes or often hear from families that they aren’t comfortable sending their children back to child care.

For older kids who need supervision while learning remotely, parents' options tend to be either unaffordable or high-risk. Private nannies or educators—even when shared with another family in a nanny share or "pandemic pod" setup—can run up a bill that might be tough to add into the family budget. Pods that have formed in New York and California are running families $2,500 per child per month.

The most popular option for parents is gravitating to family members for child care, according to the recent poll from Morning Consult and the Bipartisan Policy Center. But if there is a family members available to step in, it's often a grandparent who would be better off remaining physically distant in order to minimize their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, some parents are resorting to leaving kids unsupervised. For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that a single mother at a Hollywood elementary school has leave her first-grader home alone to avoid losing her job. She counts on a neighbor to check in on the child "from time to time." CNN reported on a single mom in Oxnard, California who had to keep going to her agricultural job, so she set up a camera to keep an eye on her son via her phone while she worked.

The crisis is disproportionately affecting lower-income families, who are also potentially grappling with a loss in income, not having enough food to eat, or family members being exposed to the coronavirus through their jobs, according to EdSource.org.

The Case for Free Child Care

It's never been more obvious that states need to provide parents will social safety nets like free, quality child care. While the CARES Act, passed in late March, gave states $3.5 billion for child care, that money has run out. Now, parents who live in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming have no free child care options, according to The Atlantic.

The outlet points out that even in states that are currently subsidizing child care, workers have to be very poor to qualify. And then there's the co-pay, potentially hundreds of dollars per month, which is simply too much for some families. One example: Georgia has been subsidizing child care for essential workers, but there aren't enough slots for the state's kids, and if a family makes over $1,214 a year, they have to pay a fee. Meanwhile, some states, like Mississippi, are stepping in to waive co-pays or create programs that cover them.

The bottom-line: With essential workers having to choose between passing a potentially fatal virus onto a vulnerable family member, leaving their child unattended, or going into debt to pay for child care, there are no good child care options for these parents—only unsafe, unjust ones. And this reality should serve to empower parents to make their voices and distress heard. With the general election in sight, they'll likely want to bear this crisis in mind when filling out their ballots this fall, as lawmakers have the power to create or eliminate programs that support families.

For more information on your state's child care resources, check out Childcare.gov.

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