The Childcare Crisis Isn’t Going Away

Scenes from quarantine — Day 115:

As we talk about schools, returning to schools, and the importance of schools, and the push to reopen schools, the first elephant in the room is really childcare. Here in the US we tend to conflate school and childcare so routinely that we almost don’t notice anymore but it is important to recognize that fundamentally, schools are not childcare and childcare is not school. We need to decouple the two to really examine childcare and the issues that surround it and to better understand what is problematic about leaning heavily on our public schools for childcare.

It should be no surprise that the vast majority of coverage criticizing the urgent lack of childcare in this pandemic has come from women. Childcare should not be a gendered issue but overwhelmingly has been for all of human history. Right or wrong, the burden of caring for children has disproportionately fallen on women and too often our societal framework places women in a situation where they feel forced to choose between their families and their livelihoods. It is women of all walks of life who have historically struggled to secure childcare and cried out for its lack across decades and with astonishing consistency they have largely been ignored. There was a childcare shortage severe enough when I was a small child that even I could recognize it at the time. A generation later, there was a childcare shortage when my own children were small. I witnessed programs fill up and overflow to long waiting lists within hours of accepting applications. More broadly, with the majority of parents of small children now working outside the home, studies have identified prevalent regions of “childcare deserts” with three children under the age of six for every available childcare place. The pandemic has only exacerbated, not caused, the painful shortfalls of childcare now, as daycares abruptly shut and afterschool and camp programs were cancelled. The cries for childcare now are nothing new, they are only louder and ever more desperate as record joblessness spreads poverty, hunger, and homelessness in its wake.

As a parent who has cared for my children at home, paid other individuals to care for my child in my home, placed children in short-term and longer term childcare, and had children in school, I should state that the very first concern for any parent is their the child has a safe place in a nurturing environment where they can do what children naturally do at every age, principally explore and play. This is the sharp line drawn between childcare and school. We all want our children to learn and grow, but ultimately, our first concern is that they are safe and nurtured every hour of the day. Childcare, when it works well, meets this basic need reliably and consistently. School is important but the primary focus of school has been and always should be learning. Education may be universally important but it is a couple steps up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and any teacher can relate that when the more fundamental needs are not met, learning cannot happen no matter how well-appointed the classroom may be.

The cry for childcare has persisted across generations as our country’s robust public school systems have worked to educate our children to some standard since 1635 (well before the United States of America were united states). The US Department of Education dates back 1867 with the original purpose of helping the states establish their own public school systems. That we have faced a childcare crisis across more than 150 years of public schooling demonstrates very neatly that schools exist to educate and socialize. We may have all been using our schools as a safe place to stash our children for a few hours, but that has never been their primary function.

Because schools have never been structured to function as childcare, any working parent (and really, every one of us is a working parent) can tell you that sending your child off to school has never been especially helpful to creating a regular block of productive time. First, the average school day of the beforetimes was 7 hours long while the average workday was 8 but really 9 with a lunch break, then 10–11 once you include the time to drop off/pick up your child at school and commute to wherever you are trying to work. So every parent employed outside the home was already stuck with 3–4 hours of having to either apparate their child into a pocket dimension, leave them unsupervised, or find some kind of extended childcare solution.

That’s an ideal day with one child, but in California, we have early dismissals, staggered start times, half-day kindergartens, and lots of holidays and pupil-free days that aren’t marked on any employer’s calendar and the logistics for multiple children become untenable quickly. I had one year with a preschooler, a kindergartner, and a third grader where my daily schedule looked like this: kinder drop-off (parent must stay on the playground until the bell) at 8:15, third grader drop-off at 8:45 (no, the third grader was not allowed to play unsupervised on the playground from 8:15–8:45). Preschool drop-off at 9:30, kindergartner pickup at 11:45, preschooler pick up at 12:00, third-grader pickup at 3:15, unless it was a Wednesday, in which case the oldest child had to be picked up by 1:45. Two and a half hours a day (not counting commute time to anyplace that wasn’t my child’s school) was not enough time to apply to any paid work or any kind of continuing education, but the problem of managing these fairly erratic schedules and finding time to make adult contributions to our society around them has been left squarely on the shoulders of the parents.

Some city and school districts have programs to provide lower-cost options that accommodate erratic school calendars, but demand has consistently far outstripped supply. Still, access to reliable, quality childcare has been consistently linked to your wealth. A good nanny was worth her (overwhelmingly her) weight in gold if your family budget stretched far enough to provide a full-time income for an additional person. Families who could not make that stretch tried every possible solution to account for the hours kids were not in school. Some parents, if they were able, switched jobs to something with flexible hours and lots of time working from home (often with kids swirling around at least part of the time even before the pandemic). I’ve had friends who were event planners, realtors, stylists, pet groomers, bookkeepers, and no small number that found jobs at the school as everything from playground aide to computer lab monitor. Some straight up earned their teaching certification themselves so they could take the one stable job that aligned with their children’s schedules. And some, myself included, stayed home because we had no hope of earning as much as it cost to pay for childcare (I witnessed one mother learn this the hard way after returning to the workplace and discovering that she was losing $200 each week she continued to work). The only universal, besides perhaps endless ingenuity, was that whatever our situation and no matter how many hours we, or someone else spent with our child, we told ourselves that it was our choice and that we should be happy about it, while feeling guilt for never being enough.

It is also worth noting that human beings do not emerge from the womb as leggy 5 year olds eager to learn their letters. Childcare resources are in much shorter supply and much more costly from birth to kindergarten. Not only do we completely lack any kind of universal paid parental leave in this country, but subsidized 0–5 childcare for low-income families is extremely rare. There’s a reason that Sesame Street was developed to try to reach minority preschool-aged children by television in their homes. We simply do not have an equivalent infrastructure to our public schools that is focused on meeting the fundamental needs of the youngest members of our society and those of their parents as they try to maintain financial support.

Of course, when the schools shut down, aftercare programs, day-care centers, home-care providers, all shut down with them and suddenly, when any contact with a neighbor might spread disease, the patchy network of relatives, friends, and neighbors that the poorest families often relied on for childcare, all vanished just as abruptly. A small number of programs were able to continue to operate to serve a small sliver of essential healthcare workers such as the YMCA in New York City which cared for a staggering 40,000 through March and April, but as states reopened and unemployment was withdrawn, most of the childcare providers remained closed. This forced families into the painful decision between staying home with their child or returning to work to preserve a desperately needed income. In early May, there was a strange news story of a 5 year old who tried to drive the family car by himself to California to buy a Lamborghini. If you are wondering how something like that could happen, it was a symptom of the pandemic childcare crisis. He had been left with his 13 year old sister to watch him alone as both their parents had to work and had no other options.

Now, after decades of telling us that childcare isn’t important, our administration insists that reopening our schools five days a week is the solution to this very new problem of what to do with children when their parents want to earn an income. Yes, we are all stir-crazy as we are with our children with us 24/7, whether working from home or trying to figure out how to step outside of it while keeping the family safe, but schools are not equipped to meet our nation’s childcare needs in this moment because they were never equipped to meet them before.

I have seen almost nothing on the reopening of daycares and aftercare programs in conjunction with schools, but the risk of infection only increases as you increase the number of hours spent in a public setting, so I suspect the federal government will be hard-pressed to find any public health official who encourages expanding the time a child is in a public space from, say, 4 hours, to 10. So if schools reopen and do so with strange hybrid schedules many are considering (2 days on 3 days off, or 3 hours a day, or one week at school, one week at home), there is little likelihood that there will be plentiful daycare options to expand the fractured school hours into something that adults can wring productivity from. There has also been nothing said about any efforts to support parents of under-5s with any kind of childcare resources, so expect to see more extremely small drivers going 25 on the freeway with their blinker on, I guess.

While the data coming out of New York City with the YMCA and Department of Education programs was promising, we also cannot simply assume that children are unlikely to either become seriously ill or transmit the virus to other children or their adult caregivers. Texas recently reported over 1300 coronavirus cases from 12,220 childcare facilities. Approximately two-thirds of the reported cases were adult staff members, with the remaining third being children at the facilities The state had reportedly only 59 cases, found in 53 facilities in mid-May, so I guess we can infer from this that Texas never closed its childcare facilities and that COVID-19 will readily spread among children if it is highly prevalent in their community.

So what do we do? In an ideal world, states would have received funding to support keeping ALL children in a safe environment, prioritizing keeping them home as much as possible. While such funding would allow for the establishment of care facilities for the children of essential workers, it would also facilitate a universal, basic income, for families that are not essential workers, relieving the short-term pressure to work. This would essentially pay parents to care for their own children until a return to public was safe. The burden of childcare would still disproportionately fall on women, but legislative job protection measures, similar to protections in place for maternity and paternity leave, could lessen the long-term impact on caregivers’ careers, particularly if a large portion of the population all needed to put their careers on hold simultaneously.

Looking at Texas, looking here at California, obviously none of that is suddenly going to happen four months into the pandemic. We are stuck taking smaller actions as individuals to prioritize the safety of our families and of the wider community as much as we can. They are, as has often been the case in this pandemic, difficult and scary.

If you at all can stay home and keep your children home with you, please do. Keep them home from daycare and keep them home from school when it reopens. Yes, it’s incredibly stressful, your children feel isolated, scared, and their mental health is taking a dive as is yours. Yes, it means that your work productivity is significantly hampered. Yes, it means that you will have to face your boss and have a frank discussion about the fact that your children exist and you have no other safe place for them to be right now. Unfortunately, an uncontrolled pandemic was always going to exert an incredibly heavy toll on you and your children and it was always going to significantly impact everyone’s productivity. We need to be honest about this and we need more of our society to understand that children are not some problem that will simply go away if we ignore it.

Staying home in less ideal and less productive circumstances frees up childcare spaces for those who have absolutely no choice but to leave their child for work. It also reduces the number of contacts that your children and their children have, reducing the risk of virus transmission, and leaves more physical space for children who need to socially distance in the childcare facilities. Without the focus on teaching, childcare facilities have had much higher child to caregiver ratios which is potentially good now as it means that fewer adult caregivers will be at risk from interaction with other adults. It also means that if childcare enrollment is at pre-pandemic levels, that there will be too many children in the available space to implement social distancing to any meaningful degree.

Looking further ahead, recognize that our neglect in building a childcare infrastructure has assured that this pandemic will devastate the careers, aspirations, and livelihoods of an astonishing number of women. Even the most privileged of women have been and will continue to struggle to meet the same professional milestones as their male colleagues. More immediately minority women make up a disproportionately large percentage of childcare and school staff and will be placed at significantly higher risk of infection, long-term complications, or death by the outbreak. This is an approaching train wreck from which we cannot look away. If you are in any position to cultivate opportunities for any women coming out of this pandemic, please, please do. Recognize that coming out of the other side of this crisis together with their loved ones is a tremendous accomplishment and an extremely worthy focus of their time and energies, over months, or years, however long it takes. Recognize that there will be some who, for all their efforts, were not able to keep their families safe and well. Some will lose parents, spouses, even children. Weep with them, then fight for the changes they begged for. Children aren’t expendable and parents are not either. We need childcare literally yesterday and we will still need it tomorrow.


Tanya Klowden is a parent, scientist, designer, and person in her neighborhood. As she writes she seeks to amplify the voices that have been hushed in history.

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