Jun 30, 2020 - Economy

The coming child care crisis

Illustration of a playground slide with a hole at the bottom of the slide part

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With coronavirus cases spiking and no end in sight, schools and day care centers may not fully reopen in the fall, triggering a massive child care crisis for millions of American workers.

The big picture: For months, America's parents have been juggling work, homeschooling and child care — doing whatever they can until the post-pandemic return to normalcy. But now, what seemed like a temporary predicament is turning into an ongoing ordeal.

What's happening: Schools and school districts are starting to release their plans for the fall, and, to ensure safety, many — including those in Seattle, Omaha and Fairfax County — have come up with hybrid online and in-person schedules.

That means the continuation of remote learning — which leaves behind scores of kids without access to technology — and relentless stress for parents.

  • Despite these problems, the majority of Americans agree with taking things slow. Per a new Politico-Morning Consult poll, 54% of Americans are nervous about reopening K-12 schools.

But school district plans are starting to reveal a scary reality for the 40% of U.S. workers between 20 and 54 who have children at home.

  • "Most working families need care for at least 40 hours a week, and schools were providing that," says Adrienne Schweer, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. "If that's gone, there's nothing to fill the void."
  • Care for children under five is also in crisis, she says. The Center for America Progress projects that the pandemic will put up to 50% of day care centers out of business, erasing some 4.5 million slots for young kids.
  • Fewer slots — combined with the cost of enhanced safety measures at facilities —will drive up already sky-high price of child care.

At the same time, more and more states are reopening — and calling employees back to work.

  • That leaves few, if any, options for single-parent households or parents that cannot afford child care.
  • And even parents privileged enough to continue working from home face unsustainable situations. "People can’t realistically do their jobs properly" with kids at home, says Sarah Lux-Lee, CEO of Mindr, a consultancy that works with companies to help retain parents as employees.
  • On top of that, this new normal could set parents back in the workplace — especially mothers, who tend to bear much of the child care and homeschooling burden. There's the isolation that comes from missing happy hours or team lunches and — even worse — the possibility of being passed over for promotions or raises.

"Companies have an important role to play here," Lux-Lee says.

  • As school schedules remain at least partially remote, firms can build in flexibility for working parents by implementing shorter work days or work weeks.
  • "We need to measure people on outcomes and not on hours," she says.

The bottom line: "It feels like child care is being regarded as a footnote of reopening plans rather than a headline," Lux-Lee tells Axios. "But until schools properly reopen, there cannot be a return to business as usual."

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