As fall quickly approaches, difficult questions about the K-12 school year loom for parents, policymakers, and school administrators. The nation must weigh the academic and social benefits of in-person instruction with the health risks that students and teachers face if they return to classrooms. But discussions about reopening schools must also consider that schools serve an important function beyond academics. Schools serve as child care for working parents.
Preliminary reopening plans include many blends of in-person and online instruction to mitigate viral transmission. Some major school districts have already opted for full online learning. But for parents unable to work from home, most of whom are low-income workers, caring for children during periods of distanced learning will not be feasible. And for those privileged to work remotely, the need for child care has not faltered and is only likely to grow as children require increased educational support.
Over 23 million working parents with school-age children and no at-home caregiver will look to child care providers for the support they need to return to work and help their children learn1. However, this will be a daunting task for a child care system that was fragile prior to COVID-19 and received insufficient funding to sustain itself through the height of the pandemic. The following is an outline of the ways our nation’s child care industry can serve as a mechanism to ensure parents can continue working among periodic outbreaks and various school reopening policies this fall. State and local officials, school leaders, and even members of Congress must ensure that a robust plan for child care access is a part of any plan to reopen schools.
In the discussion around K-12 reopening, policymakers and school officials agree that children need to continue learning this fall, but the physical reopening of schools, as with any large gathering of people, poses risks for COVID-19 transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention school reopening guidance indicates that schools can reduce risk by having students stay six feet apart, remain with the same teacher throughout the school day, and learn in smaller class sizes. However, without limiting the number of students present each day, hallways, buses, and classrooms are not conducive to these mitigation protocols. Therefore, education experts have explored blends of online and in-person instruction and some districts have opted for them. For instance, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has announced that families will have two schooling options, either full-time online instruction or two days of in-person instruction per week.
This debate has also seen a push to prioritize in-person instruction as some health experts argue that schools need to seriously consider the negative consequences of online learning. Guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” The AAP suggests that online instruction makes it difficult for teachers to identify and address learning deficits and child abuse, leads to child food insecurity and lowered physical activity, and imposes risks of lowered educational and social outcomes. The guidance also urges policymakers to recognize the mounting evidence suggesting children are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 and less likely to transmit the virus to others. Although a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine explains that this evidence is insufficient to gauge the health risks of sending students back to schools, it recommends that schools prioritize reopening for K-5 students.
Some states like Indiana and Washington state have released preliminary reopening guidelines that align with this guidance as they include options to phase in in-person instruction by grade level starting with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. These options follow reopening models set by European countries such as Denmark, which reopened schools first for children under age 12, and Norway, which allowed students in first through fourth grades to return while older students continued virtual learning.
Looking forward, the number of schools that will implement online learning and the number of schools that will be able to physically reopen is unclear. However, it is apparent that K-12 reopening plans will vary by geographic location, and that many schools will be partially or fully online throughout the fall as school districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, some of the largest in the nation, have already decided to abandon plans to bring students back to school.
There is an obvious conflict between ensuring the health of children and teachers and providing optimal academic experiences for students. But any discussion of the risks and benefits of reopening K-12 schools must acknowledge a crucial function of schools: for working parents, schools serve as child care. For our country’s youngest students, teachers are more than just educators, they are also caregivers. Parents rely on pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and elementary schools as safe places for their children during the workday.
Blended models will impose serious challenges on working parents and hinder an economy that is just beginning to get back on its feet. Having school-age children at home would force many parents to reduce their work hours or consider leaving their jobs to care for their children. In a 2019 Bipartisan Policy Center survey, 68% of parents said having child care affected their ability to remain in the workforce and 66% said lack of child care prevented them from working more hours. For the low-income families who were particularly devastated by the pandemic—and are half as likely as families above 250% of the Federal Poverty Level to be able to have a parent stay home—finding a balance might be impossible. A recent analysis of 2018 American Community Survey data by the University of Chicago indicates that such closures could leave 23 million workers with children between 6 and 14 years old and no other nonworking household member in need of school-age care.
We also know that these heightened child care demands would widen gender disparities in the workplace. Women would likely experience most of the impacts of the sudden need to stay home with children as 45 percent of women—compared with 33 percent of men—indicated that finding a child care provider had a large impact on whether they remained working. An analysis of American Time Use Survey data by the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that in families with two married, working parents, men provide just 7.2 hours of child care per week, while women provide 10.3 hours. With women providing 60 percent of the care, a substantial rise in the number of hours children are out of school would likely force more women than men to leave their jobs to stay home. Furthermore, 21% of children (15.7 million children) live with only their mother, whereas just 4% of children (3.2 million children) live with only their father. The increase in remote learning will be a serious burden for single mothers who serve as sole household earners.
Some parents are fortunate enough to continue working remotely, so rotating schedules and online schooling might have less of an impact, but will still cause significant issues with caregiving and work responsibilities. A BPC survey conducted during the height of the pandemic revealed that a third of parents working remotely had to alternate work hours with someone in their household in order to care for their children. When children attend school from home during the fall, parents privileged to work virtually will be pressed to find a balance between working and providing the additional academic help children need when learning online. Even for these parents, providing sufficient care for children during working hours might not be feasible.
As schools implement intermittent in-person school days, parents will have no choice but to look to child care providers for the consistent support they need to return to work, continue working remotely, or search for a new job. The child care industry would face the daunting task of delivering care to a significant portion of the 35.5 million children who enroll in public pre-kindergarten through eighth grade annually. This undertaking would overwhelm a fragile industry that cares for almost 7 million children in center-based care and another 3 million children in home-based setting each year, yet was under-resourced and already lacked capacity to serve those in need prior to COVID-19.
The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic left the already-vulnerable child care industry in dire shape. During the peak of the crisis, 60% of child care programs around the country had closed and a third of the child care workforce had lost jobs, more than almost every other sector of the economy. And throughout the months leading up to the school year, mounting challenges for providers will continue to threaten the viability of the child care industry and leave child care programs unable to fully support our nation’s families in the fall. If more families and children, particularly those in the K-12 system, rely on child care programs to meet their work and educational needs, the industry will in no way be ready to rise to the challenge without substantial government support.
Regardless of the various structures and schedules K-12 schools around the country enact, a viable child care industry would serve as a mechanism to ensure parents can continue working through periodic outbreaks that may lead to longer shutdowns. The spikes in cases associated with states reopening thus far signal that we will likely see outbreaks throughout the country until there is a vaccine. During both planned and unplanned school closures, a reliable child care system could prevent the economy from periodically lurching to a halt by preventing parents from having to suddenly stay home from work for weeks at a time to care for their children.
The CARES Act was an essential down payment that allowed many frontline workers to access child care during the crisis and has provided some support for providers as they reopen. However, states are depleting their funds, and some are having to pull from other sources as they recognize that a stable child care industry is a prerequisite to reopening the economy. As child care providers use what little funding they received from the CARES Act to reopen and support parents as they return to work, the unprepared and under-resourced industry will likely be called upon this fall to support young students during the school year.
A stable child care industry is vital to a smooth and continuous economic reopening. Leaders cannot have a comprehensive discussion about K-12 school reopening without acknowledging the ways in which child care providers will serve students and working parents alongside traditional schools in the fall. Federal, state, and district school leaders must recognize that any successful K-12 reopening plan needs to include a plan to substantially increase child care access.
1 This estimate was calculated using data reported in Table 1 of the working paper.4 According to Table 1, 10.7% of the 2018 workforce had children only between the ages of 6 and 14 with no available caregiver in the household (no non-employed household member). Additionally, 4.5% of the workforce had at least one child between the ages of 6 and 14 and at least one child under the age of 6. Therefore, of the 156 million American workers in 2018, 15.2%, or 23.7 million workers, would potentially need non-parental care for their school-age child on remote school days, assuming they do not leave the labor force. This analysis does not account for whether a parent is able to work from home and how that might impact need for care.