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Child Care in COVID-19: Another Look at What Parents Want

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted the lives of working families, especially those with very young children. Access to high-quality, affordable child care has always been a challenge and this has only been exacerbated by the virus. In August 2020, the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult surveyed parents of young children to better understand parents’ child care needs during this time. The results are alarming. With over 70% of parents reporting that their child care programs either closed or are operating at reduced capacity or hours, finding quality child care that fits within a parent’s budget is even more challenging and directly impacts a parent’s ability to work. As parents consider returning their children to child care, they overwhelmingly expressed concern about the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the importance of health and safety measures in child care programs. As the new school year approaches, parents are struggling to balance their fears of COVID-19 spread with work demands and child care needs.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on child care today, the survey looked at child care utilization before and during COVID-19. The survey looked at employed parents with children under age five who were paying and not paying for care in January 2020. Forty-five percent of parents surveyed were paying for child care in January 2020. This ranged from 34% of parents in rural communities who were paying for child care to 54% in urban communities. Of parents not paying for child care, 30% had a family member or relative providing care for their children and 14% had members in their household alternating work hours to provide care.

To better understand the current supply of child care, we asked parents to report on the operating status of their previous child care arrangements. The changes are stark, with over 70% of child care programs either closed or operating at reduced capacity or hours. Some programs were required to close while others limited their hours, reduced capacity, or reserved space for children of essential workers. The extent of these changes varied by program type, however. Among parents using home-based providers in January 2020, 29% reported their program remained open throughout the pandemic. On the other hand, 32% of parents who were using a formal child care center prior to the pandemic say their child care provider has temporarily closed with plans to reopen, 14% are permanently closed, and 30% of parents reported their program is open with limited hours or spaces, or has remained open only for children of essential workers.

Just as child care has changed, so too have parents’ work demands. Plans for returning to work are further complicated by parents’ fear of exposing their children to the virus, thereby impacting their decisions to return to work. While some parents have the option to work remotely, 22% of parents cannot return to work in person without child care. During COVID-19, 30% of parents had sought child care, and 54% found it difficult to find child care that fits in their budget. Finding care was especially challenging for those with lower incomes, with 72% of parents with an income less than $50,000 expressing some degree of difficulty.

The survey also sought to understand parents’ thoughts on returning their children to child care during the pandemic. Over three-fourths of parents (77%) are concerned that returning their children to a child care program will increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19. Parents consider many factors as they think about returning their children to a child care program, including their children’s learning and development and concerns of COVID-19. Yet, they have also expressed comfort in having a family member or relative care for their children during this time. Among parents who do not plan on returning to child care, 57% will have a spouse or partner care for their child, and 33% will seek care from a family member or relative. According to parents, the most important health and safety measures for child care programs are increased hand sanitizing stations (36%), temperature and symptom checks at entry (36%), required COVID-19 testing for staff (36%), and required use of face masks among staff (35%).

As fall fast approaches and schools begin to reopen, parents of school-aged children will need to coordinate child care arrangements based on their school district’s plans. Among parents surveyed who also have school-aged children, 40% say their region’s public school district will be using a hybrid format this fall. Nearly half (49%) of these parents report students will alternate days in school, meaning some type of child care arrangement will be necessary. The data show that over one-third of parents will look for a child care provider if their school does not reopen in the fall, and 39% of these parents prefer a formal child care program. Three-quarters of these parents, however, would be unable or unwilling to pay for this type of care.

This is an unprecedented time for parents and families, who are working hard to make decisions that keep their children healthy and safe. Parents of young children are now trying to balance work demands and schedules, child care needs, school reopening plans, and decisions to return to child care—all during a pandemic. Findings in this survey bring to light how parents are making their child care decisions and can help identify ways for strengthening the child care system to better meet their needs. One thing is clear. For business to fully recover and for parents to return to work child care is a critical factor. Sustaining quality child care programs through the coming months will be key to our long-term economic recovery.

The survey was conducted from August 3-10, 2020 among 1,000 parents of children under the age of 5 and had someone in the household employed in January 2020. The interviews were conducted online. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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