By: USA Today
Carlos Atkins, 27, used to spend weekdays with his 2-year-old son Malachi, taking walks and reading books, before heading out into the night to power wash sidewalks, pick up trash and remove graffiti in downtown Detroit for a local nonprofit. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the city and his son’s daycare center but not Atkins’ job as an essential worker. After being reassigned to a midday shift that ends at 9 pm, he’s scrambled to find child care, leaning heavily on his mom and aunt.
Even clad in a jumpsuit, gloves and mask, his line of work carries health risks and he’s fearful of bringing home the deadly virus to the two-family flat he shares with his son, mother and younger sister. And, fiercely protective of his young charge, he wonders whether his son should return to daycare when Michigan reopens.
“It’s overwhelming. I try not to focus on it,” Atkins says. “I just hope and pray for the best.”
What schools will look like when they re:Scheduled days home, more online learning, lots of hand-washing
When will schools reopen?:Not soon, education leaders say, despite Trump’s declarations
The push to reboot the nation’s economy is leaving millions of parents like Atkins in a tough bind. They can’t go back to work without someone to care for their children, whether preschools or daycare facilities, babysitters or relatives. And, even if they can find child care, they’re worried states are moving too quickly and may be putting their kids’ lives at risk.
Lack of child care is quickly emerging as one of the biggest barriers to the economy bouncing back, says Patricia Cole, senior director of federal policy for Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on early childhood development.
“Child care is foundational to our nation’s ability to recover from this crisis,” Cole said during a press briefing put on by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
COVID-19 plunges child-care system into crisis
COVID-19 has plunged the child-care industry, 90% of which is privately run, into a crisis the likes of which the nation has never seen.
Already child-care centers were expensive to operate and stayed afloat on meager profits. Caregivers and other staffers, a third of whom have been laid off, often get by on poverty wages and public assistance, unable to afford child care for their own children.
Now child-care advocates argue the nation’s already fragile system is at risk of collapse. They are lobbying for billions more in federal aid to ensure reliable child care is available to parents.
Though in many places they were not required to close, since the pandemic began, nearly half of child-care facilities nationwide have shut down, some of them indefinitely as the coronavirus forced families to keep kids at home, according to a survey of child-care providers conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Seventeen percent of providers have closed to everyone except the children of essential personnel. Of the facilities which have remained open, 85% are operating at less than 50% of enrollment capacity and the majority of those are operating at less than 25% of capacity, the survey conducted in April found.
“We don’t fully know yet who are the child-care providers and facilities that are not going to have survived this economic crisis because they just couldn’t keep the doors open,” says Javaid Siddiqi, CEO of The Hunt Institute, an education nonprofit in Cary, North Carolina.
It’s also unclear how many providers will be able to afford to reopen or at what capacity with strict new health protocols that vary from state to state. Some new rules limit the number of children that can be in any group – and in many cases require the same children and adults be placed together every day. Child-care centers also face higher costs for additional staffing, personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.
Summer camps and programs have also fallen on hard times and are being driven out of business. The ones still standing are trying to figure out if or how they can reopen safely.
Half of facilities closed, remaining providers stretched
Child-care providers that have remained open to watch over the children of essential workers are stretched to the breaking point.
Crystal Perry-Grant, a 38-year-old mother of three, runs a family daycare in Perris, California, a small city in Riverside County. For 12-hour stretches with the help of her 17-year-old daughter, she cares for eight children whose parents are essential workers from firefighters to UPS workers, ranging in age from 1 to 9.
School-age kids learn remotely on six computers that routinely slow her WiFi to a crawl. She cooks homemade soups from fresh farm produce to boost their immune systems. Hand sanitizer squirted liberally throughout the day into little palms has kept sickness at bay. In the last two months, she hasn’t had even a single runny nose.
“Our parents need us. They don’t have family around. It’s a dire need. I would feel bad if I closed,” Perry-Grant says. “No one had a job they could up and quit, so I couldn’t either.”
But Perry-Grant can’t take on any more children. She has no openings and a long waiting list.
“This goes very much to the heart of whether we are going to be able to just reopen the economy,” says Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress who studies the child-care industry. “There are a lot of reasons why we can’t just flip a switch and this is very high on the list.”
For Demetriss “Demi” DeShazior, a 41-year-old medical assistant in Miami, Florida, child care tops her list of concerns.
Her mother babysat her 2-year-old while DeShazior languished on a long waiting list for partially subsidized child care. When she was seven months pregnant, DeShazior learned she’d secured a spot, but this was a month before the pandemic hit. Before she could finish filling out the paperwork, child-care facilities closed.
So DeShazior took family medical leave earlier than she anticipated in March to stay home with her son. Now she’s applying for child care for her toddler and 5-week-old as an essential health worker but her unease is growing.
“If I do return to work, will my babies be safe from contracting COVID-19 at daycare?” DeShazior wonders. “Will I even have daycare covered for both babies by my return date?”
Nation cannot reopen with kids still at home
Even before the coronavirus tore across the country, parents scrambled to find child care. With too few spots to meet demand, the burden fell heaviest on low-wage parents, women and families of color. Now millions more spots may have evaporated.
Traditional backstops such as grandparents who used to step in to care for children while parents worked belong to populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“Most states are talking about child care, but there’s a mixed bag in terms of how many are actually being planful about it. When you as a state say, ‘we’re open,’ but then you don’t give guidance around child care, that puts the burden of the situation on families,” says NAEYC’s CEO Rhian Evans Allvin. And that, Allvin, says, “exacerbates the already existing inequities in early childhood education because inherently wealthier families have more options.”
As more parents prepare to return to work, the enormity of the challenge facing the nation’s patchwork child-care system is staggering.
Four in 10 working adults have children under 18. Nearly 60% of children under 5 participated in regular weekly care arrangements and a third were enrolled in a child-care program of some kind before the coronavirus struck. Yet, with many child-care providers from small family daycares to after-school programs closing up shop indefinitely, parents are at loose ends.
“Parents who are being called back into work at this point really may find challenges in securing care or even, in some cases, securing the care they were accustomed to,” says Dan Wuori, director of early learning at The Hunt Institute, which has a database tracking state child-care policies.
Among those parents is Laura Byrd, 35, a human resources generalist from Newark, New Jersey and mother of a 7-year-old who’s been working from home since the start of the pandemic.
“Our ‘new normal’ will pose some difficulties once I am instructed to return to the office. As the state reopens, our daycare centers and summer camps will not be operating which will create child care issues for me,” says Byrd, who’s considering taking a leave of absence if necessary.
Agonizing choices between health risks and paychecks
Reopening is forcing parents in Georgia, Florida and other states into an agonizing choice between potentially risking their health and the health of their children and earning a paycheck.
Late at night and in the early morning hours, Christy Moreno, 39, a bilingual editorial director, squeezes a stress ball while sending work emails from her Kansas City, Missouri home.
Her makeshift office is a small round table in the corner of her dining room covered in stray crayons and device chargers. This single mother of two, ages 10 and 13, balances overseeing her children’s education and counseling Latino parents working in hotels and restaurants on how to find child care. On social media, parent groups are overflowing with worry and confusion: What are families supposed to do?
Anxieties are running especially high for parents whose children have health conditions that put them at higher risk for the coronavirus. Many can’t afford lower-risk options such as babysitters and nannies or having one parent stay home. These parents say even if they can find child care, they don’t know if they should send their kids. Some employees can take sick leave or expanded family and medical leave if they are caring for a child when schools and daycare centers are closed under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law in March, but not everyone has that option.
“Parents are being forced into this Catch-22,” says Keri Rodrigues, founding president of the National Parents Union, a network of parent organizations across the country. “They feel a desperate need to go back to work but at the same time they are terrified of this deadly virus.”
Parents worry: Is it safe to send kids back to child care?
Laid off in March, Rachel Jean-Pierre is a single mother of two in Union, New Jersey. If she’s called back to her job in New York City as a guest service manager in July, she will have to find a family member to help care for her children 6 and 9, both of whom have asthma.
“With the government reopening the economy with no confirmed solution to this pandemic, I am torn between wanting my children to return to their normal schedules and wanting to keep them safe,” she says. “Until the country has really grabbed hold of this pandemic, as a parent with children who suffer from asthma, I would rather be safe than sorry.”
Conflicting messages have not helped parents make these tough calls. While President Trump pushes governors to work to reopen schools, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned in Senate testimony last week: “We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children.”
It’s week 11 of quarantine for Naomi Nedd, a 49-year-old mother and contract negotiator for a managed care plan in Queens. She’s resorted to bribing her 3-year-old son with gummy bears and screen time when she has to write a contract or jump on a Zoom call. Once he falls asleep at 7:30 pm, she digs in for hours to make a dent in her workload.
“I went into this thinking, my kid is home, it will be fine. But it’s so different when you are trying to be the professional you are when you’ve left your child at daycare than when you are at a dining room table with a 3-year-old who just knows you’re mommy,” Nedd says.
Her son is supposed to start a summer program in July and preschool in the fall, but her heart races just thinking about it. The ravages of the coronavirus are all around her at the epicenter of the New York outbreak. Children her son’s age don’t know how to socially distance.
“I don’t care what opens up, if my gut feels like it isn’t safe, we will have to figure out a way to continue to make it work at home,” Nedd says.
In Boston, Yahaira Lopez, a 41-year-old mother of 10-year-old twins, one with ADHD, the other with autism, was recently laid off from her job on a mobile crisis team performing mental health risk assessments. She’s struggling to be a substitute teacher to her two fourth-graders, run Autism Sprinter, her nonprofit that helps the families and caregivers of children who are on the spectrum, and figure out how she’ll afford rent and utilities.
Schools are closed, summer programs are up in the air and Massachusetts has not yet reopened child-care centers, she says. Even when these programs restart, Lopez says she’s not sure she will send her kids. Both of her sons have severe asthma.
“I would probably be very scared to send my children to any form of child care or after school program,” she says, “or, to be honest with you, even back to school into what may be overcrowded classrooms.”