11 creative child care solutions for school breaks and closings

March 16, 2021

For some families, spring break and other school breaks provide the perfect opportunity to break up the everyday hustle and bustle with a much-needed vacation. But for many others, it’s time to scramble for child care. Whether the issue is cost or an inability to take off of work, the school break struggle is real for working parents who can’t be OOO when their little one doesn’t have school.

“I kind of dread school breaks,” says Jaclyn Santos, of Hazlet, New Jersey. “We usually wind up making it work, but as a mom who works full time, spring and winter breaks are always a challenge.”   

Before determining how you’re going to proceed with the school break conundrum, it’s smart to weigh the financial options, because, let’s face it, child care is expensive. In a recent Care.com survey,  over 70% of families reported paying more than 10% of their income on child care at the same time as the U.S. government defines “affordable care” as no more than 7% of family income. 

In other words: Does it make sense to shell out extra money for a camp or babysitter during that week? Will it mean you’ll have to forgo something else? If a school break is going to wind up negatively impacting your finances (without a suntan to show for it), you may want to consider taking time off of work — even if you’re not going out of town.

“In an ideal world, we’d always take a trip during school breaks,” Santos says. “But since that’s not the case, ultimately, it comes down to cost and availability. Is the money I earn that week going to be a wash because of child care? Is a friend or family member around to help out and pick up some of the slack? Nine times out of 10, we’re going to go with the most cost-effective, convenient option — and even then it throws our schedule for a loop.”  

If you have to work while your kids are off from school, don’t expect to wing it. Most child care centers and camps need ample notice to have the appropriate amount of staff on hand for such weeks. And if you usually use a sitter or nanny, don’t assume that they will be available for more hours than usual. Researching options or checking in with the caregiver well in advance will save headaches all around.

Ready to ditch the school break child care panic for good? Here are 11 creative solutions for when the kids have off, but you don’t.

1. Use vacation days

For working parents who aren’t jetting off to a sunny locale, sometimes it just makes sense to use the vacation days regardless.

“My son’s day care closes the same weeks my first-grader has off for winter and spring break,” says Shannon Jensen, of Canandaigua, New York. “If we’re not going away ourselves, I usually just use vacation time during those weeks. It’s actually really nice to have time at home with the kids, where we can just be lazy and not have to do anything specific.”

2. Give the sitter more hours

Annie Garland, of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, hires a babysitter for her two daughters now and again, but when the girls have off from school and she and her husband have to work, she enlists her sitter’s help even more.

“My husband and I both leave for work early, so, in addition to my youngest not meeting the age requirement for camps, the hours just don’t work for us,” she says. “Typically, I ask my sitter a few months in advance if she’ll be around for longer hours on those weeks. So far — thankfully — it’s worked out for us.”

3. Consider nanny-sharing

If you don’t use a babysitter or nanny regularly, but you know someone who does, suggest nanny sharing for the week, which will give the sitter a higher rate while reducing the cost for parents. (Nanny sharing is when two families split the cost of one sitter, but pay the sitter a higher hourly rate because they will be caring for more children.)

“My son’s day care closes during spring and winter breaks every year, which always gets tricky since I work,” says Santos. “This past winter, a co-worker and I hired a sitter together. It was great! My son loved having a playmate, and it was much cheaper than having someone care for him alone.”

4. Check in with the YMCA

Searching for last-minute child care? Check in with the Y.

“Most school breaks, we’re contacted by parents who aren’t part of our usual program in search of child care coverage since we’re always open during that time,” says Shannon McGillis Jackson, director of the Garwood Family Center Y in Garwood, New Jersey. “At our facility, we offer a drop-in care program for children 2 1/2 and up, where parents can call up to 24 hours in advance for availability and can drop their child off anywhere from an hour or the full day.”

Jackson also notes that additional centers in the area offer Vacation Fun Club days for children who are already registered in the school-age before- and after- care programs.

“Parents can register for whatever coverage they need for an additional daily fee that’s then added to their monthly tuition,” she says. 

5. Look into community activities

Community centers, libraries, zoos and even museums often have spring break camps for kids where little ones will get to do out-of-the-ordinary activities at new and exciting places. For example, during the city’s spring break, Zoo Atlanta offers a Safari Camp School’s Out Session for kids between the ages of 5 and 11, which not only exposes children to hands-on, minds-on activities but also covers parents from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (extended care is available for an extra fee ). Wins all around!

6. Enlist the help of friends and family

Need we even say it? Ask your parents, friends or other family members for help when you’re in need. We know, we know, you don’t want to feel like a burden, but, believe it or not, people love to help.

“My parents recently moved to town, so we often turn to them for help when the kids have off from school, but we need to be at work,” says Lindsay Walsh, of Syracuse, New York. “We try not to ask them to watch the kids too much, but they insist we check with them first. They’ve been lifesavers!”

Walsh notes that, in an effort to lighten the load on her parents, she also tries to mix in a few playdates for her daughters on those weeks.

7. Split the time with your partner

For dual-income households finding themselves in a child care dilemma during spring and winter breaks, divvying up the work is also an option.

“When my kids were off of school last winter break, my husband took three days off from work, and I took off two,” says Jennifer Blau, of Bridgeport, Connecticut. “We both had things we needed to be in the office for that week, so we just worked around each other’s schedules. It worked out great! We both got in time with the kids, and neither one of us had to rearrange our entire work week.”   

8. Schedule playdates

If there ever was a time for playdates, it’s during school holidays. Not only do working parents often need the coverage, moms and dads who are home with the kids are usually itching for ways to entertain their kids. It’s obviously unrealistic to expect a playdate to last from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it will kill a few hours, providing some time to work. And it goes without saying that the kids will be thrilled.

9. Use a family child care center

Since family child care centers are operated out of the owner’s house, they can be much more flexible than traditional child care centers and day care facilities — and they also may be willing to take on an extra kiddo during a school break if they have room. Ask around at school pickup for local recommendations or search the National Association for Family Child Care for accredited providers by city and state.

10. Use backup care

Companies are starting to empathize with the fact that employee attendance and productivity are not mutually exclusive to child care — and they’re doing something about it. Many organizations are subsidizing the cost of backup child care for when regular care falls through — and that includes school closings. Through employee benefits programs with backup care services, such as Care@Work, working parents can breathe a sigh of relief during school breaks because not only will high-quality care be available to their children, but they won’t be left scrambling or paying exorbitant fees.  

Talk to your Human Resources department about enrollment to take advantage of an employer-sponsored backup care program. If your company doesn't offer this benefit, ask HR to consider it.

11. Work from home

If push comes to shove — and let’s face it, sometimes it does — see if you can get the flexibility to work from home during school break weeks. Is it ideal? No. Will you be as focused as usual? Probably not. Will your kids wind up indulging in more screen time than you’d normally condone? Probably. But sometimes the only babysitter available during a conference call is Peppa Pig. The universe will forgive you, and your kids will still turn out OK. Promise.

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

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