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‘This is not working.’ Parents juggling jobs and child care under COVID-19 see no good solutions

At 5 a.m., attorney Keisha Hudson wakes up, plants her toddler in front of the television, and plunges into work on her laptop to try to get through as much as she can. In less than two hours, her 8-year-old daughter will wake up, have breakfast, and from that point on, the day will just get more complicated. Zoom meetings, phone calls, emails, not to mention a general sense of chaos and guilt will then chase Hudson and her husband until late into the night. And it’s been this way for months–with no real end in sight.

“We found it impossible to work our jobs and then be parenting and supervising and teaching,” Hudson said, who lives in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. “We’re not giving 100 percent to our jobs, and we’re not giving anything close to 100 percent to parenting at this moment.”

Hudson is not alone. When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the nation’s economy and health care system, those tectonic shifts crushed millions of parents under newfound stress, often overnight. And the uncertainty of the moment disproportionately hurts women, experts say — both women who rely on child care, as well as those who provide it for families.

For decades, policymakers and the public have not appreciated the extent to which child care is essential work, said Shana Bartley, who directs community partnerships and program development in income security, child care and early education at the National Women’s Law Center. Instead, this industry has often been dismissed as “women’s work, something unique to individuals and families with children, and we’ve ignored how access to child care means something to everyone.”

So far, Congress has approved $3.5 billion that has then been dispersed under the CARES Act to bolster the child care industry. But a fraction of centers nationwide have benefited from federal dollars designated to help small businesses survive this recession. To sustain child care providers until the country fully reopens, Bartley said the industry needs to receive $9.6 billion per month. Several other aid packages are floating around, including a proposal to $50 billion, but so far, that has only amounted to talk.

“We have not understood and appreciated what care work is in our society, what it means for our economy and what it means for our future,” Bartley said. “This is the workforce behind the workforce. They power the economy.”

For Hudson, the stress was worse while they were also juggling remote learning over the spring. Summer has now given her family some time to catch their breath — as much as they can with two kids still at home. But parents across the country are facing the fact that virtual classes could resume as soon as the week after Labor Day, with no relief on the horizon and no sign that COVID-19 is slowing down. To experts, the only small cause for hope is that the current crisis may inspire calls for a cultural change.

FILE PHOTO: A day care worker cares for a baby. As parents increasingly work from home, they remove their children from situations in which they could contract coronavirus. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Impact on child care providers

Before the pandemic, women made up more than 90 percent of the child care sector with more than 1.1 million workers overall, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With a median annual income of roughly $24,000, or between $11 and $12 per hour, these full-time jobs already were typically low-paying, often had irregular hours and disproportionately employed women of color and immigrant women.

When COVID-19 tanked the U.S. economy, a third of those care workers lost their jobs during the month of April alone. Many child care providers had few resources to draw upon when their hours or jobs were cut or their facilities closed, according to Bartley. But, for those centers that remained open or reopened in the months following the start of the pandemic, it also meant that those same workers were at greater risk of exposure.

Present-day disparities in the industry stem from child care’s historical roots in the unpaid work of Black women and other women of color, Bartley said. These are the women from the same communities that have disproportionately suffered worse outcomes and died due to COVID-19.

Marina Alvarez works at a Montessori school-turned-emergency child care facility in Corvallis, Oregon. Alvarez, who uses the pronoun they, said their primary function is to clean up after the kids go to the bathroom. While the school’s cleaning protocols seem to work so far (no one has gotten sick yet), the school is serving a third of the students it normally does. Alvarez said they have no idea how this will work if the school reopens at full capacity before a vaccine is available.

“It just feels like even if we’re doing everything we possibly can do, how much can we prevent?” they said.

Child care workers face grave risk as more states report spikes in confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths and the public hears mixed messages about what is safe.

Preschool teacher Debra Reynolds has been furloughed since mid-March, and she doubts the 60-child facility in San Jose, California, where she worked will ever reopen. But fellow preschool teachers who have been able to return to work aren’t walking into the same set of circumstances, Reynolds said.

She had heard from former coworkers that at one child care facility near a major technology company, teachers and children are tested weekly for free. Two weeks ago, that testing frequency diagnosed a teacher and a pair of siblings who were infected with novel coronavirus. Everyone was sent home and the facility was placed on quarantine for two weeks.

At a different day care center, employees can get tested, but they have to pay $30 for it each time, Reynolds said. That means people often forgo the test because they can’t afford it, she said. And at still another facility, teachers get no testing and must bring their own masks.

“In child care, you don’t make much money,” Reynolds said. “It’s tough. It’s scary. When they reopen our school, what [resources] are they going to provide us with?”

FILE PHOTO: Many parents have wrestled with the idea of a little extra screen time during the coronavirus stay-at-home advisory. Experts say, as long as parents are doing their best, kids will be alright. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Toll on parents

When the pandemic forced day cares and schools to close across much of the country, the stress of child care fell upon millions of parents of children under 18, who make up a third of all U.S. workers. Those who didn’t lose their jobs in the wave of layoffs that crashed the country and were able to work from home, suddenly found themselves straddling career demands and their kids’ development. More than that, parents have felt that they are forced to choose between their kids and their jobs, often multiple times a day.

They have had to negotiate clashing schedules for video office meetings with their children’s distance learning check-ins. They’ve had to joke away kid outbursts, even on live television. Endearing as it may be, the image of young Leo bursting into a locked room to interrupt his father’s interview is a reminder of how vulnerable to chaos so many people are during this pandemic, even under the most ideal circumstances. For many, it has felt like barely scraping by, and the burden seems to be falling harder on women.

A recent survey from the American Enterprise Institute showed that during the pandemic, women often are taking a larger share of the household duties, like cooking and cleaning, along with the added child care. All that housework often crowds out any moments these women might otherwise have to decompress or pursue any form of self-care from what can often feels like an endless parade of stress.

Forty-nine percent of mothers reported feeling isolated during the pandemic, significantly more so than fathers (36 percent) or nonparents (35 percent). Mothers also were far more likely to say they felt depressed, had no time for themselves and had cried due to feeling stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed. They also felt far more uncomfortable than fathers about returning their children to classrooms and child care facilities during a pandemic.

In the survey, a majority of single-parent households said they felt lonely, depressed and stressed, significantly more than two-parent households, carrying not only the full load of parenting, but also the added pressure of keeping a steady income amid waves of layoffs, furloughs and wage freezes nationwide.

For many households, those feelings of depression and anxiety likely find little solace in the harsh economic reality that has gripped millions of Americans during the current recession. While economists anticipate the number of Americans working from home to triple after coronavirus is over, the distractions posed by working alongside children could trigger a productivity slump, according to Nicholas Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, in a released statement.

“We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days,” Bloom said. “This will create a productivity disaster for firms.”

Researchers wanted to better understand caregiver attitudes about juggling so much amid unprecedented uncertainty, said Daniel Cox, research fellow for public opinion and polling at AEI who oversaw the survey. While he wasn’t expecting good news, Cox said he was stunned by how grim the outlook among parents has become.

To Cox, the moment underlines “the necessity of child care, particularly for people with young kids who aren’t eligible to enter the formal public education system,” Cox said. “These day cares are so important for the wellbeing of families but also the financial viability of families and communities.”

After reaching historic highs of workforce participation of roughly 60 percent, Bartley said the vacuum in child care has forced women to sacrifice their careers and pick up the slack at home. Once again, women are stepping up to offer unpaid child care, but this time, the move threatens the long-term economic security of families.

When Bartley considers how child care precariously hangs in the balance, she said she blames a lack of investment and neglect on the part of policymakers, who have failed to “honor how people live their lives” and ask people to return to work when the safety of child care and schools remains uncertain.

“The COVID-19 crisis has brought this fragile system to the brink of collapse,” she said.

General view of Public School 111 in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, U.S., July 8, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

What’s next?

The child care industry has always been fragile, said Linda Smith, former deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the Department for Health and Human Services who now directs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative. For years, lawmakers relied on policies to expand access and affordability for people paying for child care but paid virtually no attention to the supply side, leaving providers to figure out how to make ends meet. For example, facilities must maintain ratios between children and care providers that exposes those businesses to financial risk if a family decides to find care elsewhere, Smith said.

That dynamic has snowballed, driving a labor-intensive industry where “the younger the children, the more labor there needs to be and the higher the cost,” she said, where in many parts of the country, the cost of child care rivals rent or mortgage.

“It costs more to produce reasonable quality child care than most people who need it can afford to pay,” Smith said.

During the push to reopen amid the pandemic, child care facilities face even steeper ratios to protect children and workers and prevent the spread of the illness — many states limit care facilities to having no more than 10 children in a room. And just like health care workers and educators, child care providers have reported issues acquiring personal protective equipment and cleaning products to keep spaces hygienic and everyone safe.

Roughly 5 percent of child care facilities — only 39,014 out of about 670,000 child care programs — received Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, relief loans from the Small Business Administration to help cover costs accrued because of COVID-19, Smith said.

Half of all these programs overall care for 50 children or less, making them more akin to small businesses, but few had the wherewithal to know how and when to apply. With facilities closing because they can’t afford to stay open, child care deserts — places without reasonable access to providers — have worsened. It’s unclear when exactly this will end, Smith said, until significant health gains are made in containing and controlling the virus.

“I don’t think we’re through this with child care until we have a vaccine because at that point, parents will feel more comfortable putting their children in care,” she said.

But the industry’s precarious moment presents an opportunity to rethink how it is funded and how it operates, Smith said. Congress could recognize child care as the public necessity that it is and appropriate more money to help keep these operators afloat. She thinks the country is “closer than a lot of people believe” to understanding how untenable the current situation is for parents and child care providers and finding a solution to fix the problem.

The essential nature of child care and the unsustainability of its business model has become so undeniable that it has earned bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, Smith said. “Both sides of the aisle understand. This is not working.”

Back in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Hudson dreads the start of school because she’ll invariably juggle teaching her older daughter Common Core math and making sure her younger daughter stays occupied, while staying on top of her own work in incarceration and criminal justice reform. The relentless stress and pace of parenting during a pandemic angers Hudson, she said, and it’s taking a toll on everybody, particularly on working mothers like herself.

Leaders have not stepped up to steer a new course, she said, and there’s a feeling that another nationwide shutdown is inevitable without a plan to avoid it. She and her family will confront the same stress they struggled to contain for four months. She doesn’t know what they’re doing to do, and it doesn’t help that they must stare down the same uncertainty every day, that “everything could change in a moment.”

“We don’t have a plan,” she said. “I shouldn’t yell at the federal government for not having a plan, because me and my husband don’t have a plan, either.”