America is reopening, but there’s still not enough child care

May 8, 2020

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the U.S., many of us have been daydreaming about the day when stay-at-home orders finally end and life can return to normal. Now, more than half of the states in the U.S. are starting to lift COVID-19 restrictions or have plans to start lifting them by the end of the month, but things are far from the way they were. As businesses reopen and parents grapple with the reality of trying to return to work, many of them face an intensified crisis: They don’t have anyone to help with their kids.

The child care struggle has been magnified conducted a survey of 1,254 full-time American workers in mid-February 2020, as part of the 2020 Work + Life Report. Even before the full effects of the pandemic were felt, here’s what survey participants shared:

  • More than 80% of participants reported missing work to care for a loved one at least a few times a year. 

  • Over 40% of parents and caregivers said they regularly scrambled to find last-minute care options for their loved ones.

  • 47% said they missed important family events due to work every couple of months, or as often as once per week.

Since then, 47 states have closed school through the end of the academic year, about half of all U.S. day cares are closed, and, even upon reopening, experts are anticipating as much as a 20% decline in total available day care spots. Plus, summer school and summer camp also aren’t happening. This sudden shift to having zero child care options has put a huge strain on working parents. As journalist Elie Mystal writes for The Nation, “Politicians want people to get back to work as soon as possible, but they seem to have no idea that without child care, a huge swath of the workforce will remain tied to their homes.”

As is the case with most issues related to children, the burden of picking up the slack disproportionately falls on moms. Even pre-pandemic, working moms still did more child care and housework than their working partners. During the pandemic, the disparities may be getting worse. A recent survey by the New York Times found that 80% of moms say they’re doing more homeschooling than their partners, and 70% said they’re responsible for all or most of the housework. A separate report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women also make up the majority of the COVID-related unemployment claims.

In addition to challenges related to child care and the unequal division of household labor, there’s also the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Even as states embark on grand plans to reopen the economy, over one million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic started, and over 70,000 have died. Projections show that the U.S. could average 2,000 COVID-19 deaths per day by June. And in New York City, at least 64 children have been hospitalized with symptoms of a new, rare disorder doctors believe may be linked to coronavirus.

Unfortunately, even with the dangers and hardships parents face, many don’t have the option to stay home. As businesses reopen, people who don’t return to work due to child care issues or fears about COVID-19 could be ineligible for unemployment because they voluntarily turned down work. The Ohio Office of Unemployment Insurance has actually set up a website that allows employers "to report employees who quit or refuse work when it is available due to COVID-19” so they can’t receive benefits.

Solutions are few and far between

So, what are parents supposed to do? 

Some are facing financial hardship simply because they lack options. Catherine Canbury, a mom in Pennsylvania who spoke to HuffPost about child care difficulties during the pandemic, said she has a dollar in the bank, yet is unable to work because there is no one to watch her 4-year-old son, Robbie, since his day care shut down.

Other parents, struggling to juggle child care while working at home, feel like they have no choice but to put their kids back in day care as soon as they are able. One Nebraska mom of two, who asked to remain anonymous, tells that as the state opens up this week, she’s looking for open day care spots simply because the demands of working at home and being a single parent are too much. “Balance doesn’t happen,” she says. “I try to have the kids do some work in the morning on worksheets and then direct them to activities — like cleaning rooms, art, or watching TV — while I work, but they’re just going crazy with me working and not being able to pay sufficient attention to them.”

Some parents are also starting to ask bigger questions about whether or not “normal” is even worth returning to. In a viral Twitter post, mom of 2, Alex Cashman Macken writes, “Can everyone please stop gaslighting parents & trying to suggest to them that, somehow, a return to our previous state of commuter hell, childcare juggling & spending an hour a day (if lucky) with our kids was some sort of gold standard that we need to get back to as quick as possible?”

This crisis is a case for leaders to do better by parents

It’s true that life for working parents was often a struggle even before COVID-19 became a part of daily life. In 2019, more than half of families in a survey said they were spending 15% or more of their household income on child care, and 52% said they felt like their employers didn’t care about their child care needs at all. The pandemic has exacerbated a situation that was already difficult and impractical for a lot of parents, and it remains to be seen if leaders will come up with strategies to address the problems Americans are facing. But one thing is crystal clear: If parents are ever going to get back to anything resembling “normal,” they need more support.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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