Navigating Child Care During a Pandemic: Caregivers Tell Their Stories

By: GEEARS for Saporta Report

Last week, parents and caregivers celebrated as the COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for children under age five. This was a huge and happy step for millions of families. 

It’s been a long, long wait for vaccine access for Georgia’s youngest children, during which working caregivers had to continue contending with child care disruptions, employment uncertainty, and other stressors that accompany COVID vulnerability. 

At GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, we’ve been studying these phenomena, particularly their impact on working parents’ child care experiences. Last month, we released the report, “It Kind of Broke All of Us.” Navigating Child Care and Employment in the Era of COVID-19: Parents and Caregivers Tell their Stories. 

The report is the result of a series of focus groups GEEARS commissioned in the fall of 2021, a follow-up to a statewide parent survey we conducted the previous summer. In one of the survey’s most significant findings, one in three caregivers (34%) said they or someone in their family had to quit a job, not take a job, or greatly change a job in the previous 12 months because of problems with child care, up from one in four (26%) in 2018. In addition, more caregivers reported opting for some type of home-based child care than they had before the pandemic started. 

The focus group participants shared the stories behind these statistics, and many others. 

Here are some takeaways… 

  • Many of the focus group respondents felt weary and demoralized, expressing ongoing concern about their children’s safety in child care situations.  

“Kids are not going to wash their hands. Kids are not going to wear masks. Kids are going to lick stuff and eat things and they’re going to share germs. I think it would be more convenient to keep him home and not have to deal with the inconsistencies. But that’s not necessarily what’s best for him, nor is that what he wants…it’s definitely a complicated decision to make as a parent.” —A mother from Columbia County

  • COVID’s disruption and constantly changing landscape hampered parents’ ability to plan and work. Beyond worrying about COVID infections, caregivers also had to worry about more lasting disruptions like the closure of a child care center or the resignation of a caretaker.

“At first, they closed it, then they open it back up. But when a child gets sick, they’ll close it again. So, I might have to stay at the house, and then I might not have to stay at the house. Just depends on the daycare.” —A mother from DeKalb County 

“The employer wasn’t understanding whatsoever. They said, ‘Well, you said you had an area without distraction.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, because I thought I had a sitter. She canceled. She bailed on me.’ And the employer wasn’t forgiving at all. They just said, ‘Oh, well, you lost the job.’” —A mother from Hall County

  • Sometimes, parents changed their child care choices, not because they wanted to, but because the pandemic interfered. 

“I have other friends that sent their kids to daycare just because they had to, because of their job. It was just impossible to work from home with [their children] home, and they had to work. They had no choice.” —A mother from DeKalb County 

  • Parents found themselves turning to their children’s grandparents or other relatives, both as a source for child care and as a factor informing their child care decisions.

“That’s been the biggest change—just having a friend leave Atlanta to go where they grew up because they need that right now. And they feel more comfortable having their mom or dad or family member help out, instead of staying in Atlanta, where it’s just them, and having a sitter, or nanny or whatever.” —A mother from Fulton County 

This report provides a meaningful accounting of the pandemic’s unique effect on working caregivers with children under five. But it also illuminates a theme: 

Last month in the Saporta Report, we discussed the historic infant formula shortage.

This month, we’re talking about the child care difficulties that have accompanied the pandemic. 

We can’t help but wonder—what crisis will families with young children face next month or next year? 

This shouldn’t be such a perennial question. The most rapid period of brain development occurs before age five. During the baby and toddler years, every experience can reverberate through a child’s future. Building a strong foundation from the start is the key to lifelong health and success. 

This is why GEEARS focuses like a laser on Georgia’s youngest children and their families. We know they deserve less crisis-hopping and more acknowledgment and inclusion when it comes to policy decisions, educational structures, and societal values. 

The good news is, anyone can help us advocate for these kids and their families (because they do matter to all of us, whether or not you have young children in your family). To learn more about GEEARS’ many approaches to making Georgia the best place to raise a child, visit our website.