As states across the country begin the slow road to reopening, many working parents are left wondering who's going to watch the kids.

By Kristi Pahr
May 14, 2020
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We've been under stay-home orders for as long as three months in some places, but some states are beginning to order select businesses to reopen. Georgia made headlines in April for reopening service-oriented businesses like nail, hair, and tanning salons, while other states are allowing restaurants to accept dine-in customers with strict social distancing rules in place.

While parents are slowly heading back to work, schools and daycare facilities remain closed across much of the country. So the question on everyone's minds is "Who's taking care of the kids?" Essential workers, those who were required to go to work despite stay-home orders, have cobbled together child care, frequently turning to friends and family for help with kids, but as these friends and family also return to work, many working parents will be left in the lurch in regards to providing care for their children.

"Child care is the backbone of the economy. There are 20 million children under age 5 and another 27 million that are elementary school-aged. As parents begin to return to work, they're left in a bind: find care for their children, don't return to work, or put their children in a less-than-safe situation," explains Elliot Haspel, Richmond, Virginia-based early childhood policy expert and author of Crawling Behind: America's Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.

After months of working from home and balancing virtual learning with work and the stress of a global health crisis, many parents are anxious for children to return to school or care facilities, but unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen for a while, if at all. A recent survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that many child care facilities won't be able to weather the storm of long-term closures or, for the few that remain open, decreased enrollment due to social-distancing requirements, and may end up closing permanently.

"When you put [families'] need against the fact that between one-third and one-half of child care centers are facing permanent closure–and that parents have taken a huge financial hit and may not be able to afford paid care–you realize that child care makes the difference between any chance of a smooth recovery and the promise of a dangerously rocky one," he says. "All of this also adds up to an immense amount of stress on parents, which isn't good for work productivity or a calm household."

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Can We Reopen Without Child Care?

So what happens when the economy begins to reopen without adequate systems for child care in place? According to Haspel, nothing good. "The question isn't whether it's feasible to reopen without child care, the question is how bad the damage will be," he explains. "It's similar to asking 'how feasible it to build a structurally weak building in an earthquake-prone area?' It's possible, but the results aren't going to be good."

Without child care, he says families would likely see two paths forward: Choosing not to work and caring for kids at home (bad for the family's financial situation) or finding less than ideal child care (risky for kids' safety).

"I'm worried we're going to see 9-year-olds told to take care of 3-year-olds all day. I'm worried we're going to see infants and toddlers dropped off at neighbor's houses that are in no way babyproofed," Haspel says. "And it will definitely slow the economic recovery."

Parents will find a way, of course, but as Haspel says, it's likely to the best of a handful of bad options. As friend, family, and neighbor child care options begin to dwindle due to the reopening of the economy, parents will find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to providing care for their children.

What's the Solution?

In the short term, parents can apply for their state's child care subsidy. "I think that parents should be looking to family child care as a good middle-ground option: small groups, but often licensed and trained professionals," says Haspel. "Many centers are also taking Herculean efforts to ensure safety and sanitation and should be considered serious options. Parents should also check to see if they are eligible for their state's child care subsidy program; in most states, the state is waiving the parent co-pay so it's like having free child care, at least temporarily."

In the long term, however, more systemic change is needed–centers need more funding and parents need lower fees. "Interventions need to press on two levers at one: parents and providers," says Haspel. "On the parent side of the equation, the fees have to be substantially reduced or ideally zeroed out. On the provider side, they need a consistent source of revenue, especially now that the limits on group sizes have blown up their already fragile budgetary math."

Globally, some countries have taken aggressive and proactive steps to ensure safe, healthy, and affordable child care options. Ireland and Australia have essentially waived parent fees entirely and the government has taken over as sole funding-provider. "Something of that scale is needed in the U.S. to ensure access, to say nothing of quality," says Haspel. "A lot of the discussion around child care right now is purely about having somewhere for children to go while parents return to work. What we know from brain science and child development research is that those settings need to be high-quality, which means needing a well-compensated, well-trained workforce. So it's not enough to just stick kids somewhere."

As the economy begins it's slow reopening, parents will face many tough decisions but in one of the richest, most technologically advanced countries in the world, how to provide care for their children should not be one of them. Without adequate care facilities, the road to U.S. economic recovery will be long and hard, and the hardships imposed on working parents by a broken child care system should not be ignored.

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