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NEW DATA: Online Schooling a Logistical Nightmare for Working Parents

The Brief

Many do not have consistent, affordable, and safe options for children to learn.

As the pandemic persists, K-12 schools are rethinking how they provide instruction. Parents are also being forced to rethink how they provide care for their school-age children during the week. A new analysis of national survey data collected in early August by Morning Consult and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative offers key insights into how working parents are making school-age care decisions as schools shift online.

The data reveal that there are differences in preference for formal school-age child care between rural and urban communities that will put significant pressure on urban child care providers. Affordability concerns mean many families who previously relied on formal child care for their youngest children are having to resort to informal care from family and friends for their school-age children.

And many parents indicate they will likely have to change their work hours and stay home from work to provide school-age care even though many cannot work remotely. It’s clear that parents are struggling to find consistent, affordable care for their students as this unprecedented school year gets underway.

In order to relieve pressure on families, Congress must offer additional aid to support child care and afterschool programs so they may meet the increased need for school-age care.

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Which Schools are Closing and Which Communities Want School-Age Care

Among the 1,000 working parents with children under age six who were surveyed nationally, 423 also had children of school age, ages 6-12, who are likely too young to remain home without care. Of these families, 73% reported that their region’s public school district had opted for an entirely online or hybrid format, meaning their children will need some type of care when they are not in school. However, some communities are seeing more widespread school closures than others. In our sample, families in urban communities are experiencing more online and hybrid school formats than families in rural communities, as 81% of parents in urban settings reported that their district will be either online or hybrid, while 60% of parents in rural settings reported the same.

81% of parents in urban settings reported that their district will be either online or hybrid, while 60% of parents in rural settings reported the same.

These shifting school formats present a serious school-age care challenge for single-parent families and families with two working parents. Some of these families have said they will look for formal child care—either center-based or home-based programs—to address their needs. In urban settings, single-parent families and families with both parents working are more likely to look for formal school-age child care arrangements (29%) than families in rural settings (9%).

Since more urban schools are set to provide online instruction than rural schools and since parents in urban settings indicate they are more likely to search for formal child care if their school closes, demand for child care for school-age children will likely be greatest in urban communities.

However, providers in these communities may not be able to meet this demand. Child care providers in urban areas have been particularly devastated by the pandemic. As of early August, 60% of center-based and home-based child care programs in urban communities, as compared to just 32% of programs in rural communities, had either permanently closed, remained temporarily closed, or had opened with limited operating capacity according to parents whose children attended those programs in January 2020.

Families will be calling upon these providers in search of safe, supervised settings for their children to complete online schooling, but the child care system may not be ready. To better support parents through this crisis, school districts should coordinate their reopening plans with child care providers within their communities as they face increased demand from parents with school-age children.

School-Age Child Care Demand Will be Higher in Urban Communities

Families with Online or Hybrid School Formats Families Who Will Look to Formal Child Care for School-Age Care if Their School is Online Families Whose Previous Child Care Provider Closed or Opened with Reduced Capacity
Urban 81 % 29 % 60 %
Rural 60 % 9 % 32 %

How Working Parents in Rural Communities Will Provide School-Age Care

The data indicate that single-parent families and families with two working parents in rural communities are less likely than comparable parents in urban communities to look for formal child care for their children who are receiving online instruction. But they are also less likely to be able to work remotely.

Only 22% of working parents in rural communities report being able to work remotely, while 34% in urban communities say they are able to do so. Instead, parents from rural areas plan to rely much more on family and friends for school-age care. Parents from rural communities are 65% more likely to rely on family and friends than parents from urban communities.

The data cannot be further disaggregated to show how parent preference for family and relative care differs from parent preference for friend and neighbor care. However, of the rural parents who indicated they will look for school-age care from family or friends this fall, a plurality of parents (41%) reported using family members and relatives to care for their children under age 5 during the pandemic and only 5% reported using a friend or neighbor. This pattern signals that these families may rely more heavily on family and relatives for school-age care as well.

Parents from rural communities are 65% more likely to rely on family and friends for school-age care than parents from urban communities.

More research needs to be conducted to understand what drives working parents in rural communities to prefer family and relative care over formal care options for their school-age children. Some data from this survey suggest that family and communal values might be at play.

Eighty-four percent of parents from rural communities ranked either family and relatives or friends and neighbors in their top three most preferred choices for child care assuming cost were not a factor, while 53% of or urban parents did the same. However, the consistent lack of child care access in rural communities may also contribute to this difference. In an October 2019 BPC survey, 51% of families in urban settings said finding quality care within their budget was easy, while only 38% of families in rural settings said the same. Parents in rural settings may be more likely to look to family and friends for care because they have experienced a lack of formal child care options—even before the pandemic.

School-Age Care Decisions Look Different from Traditional Child Care Decisions

Regardless of community setting, working parents have a noticeably low preference for finding formal child care arrangements to care for their school-age students this fall. Only 25% of the single-parent families and families with two working parents who used formal child care prior to COVID-19 plan to look to formal child care for their school-age care needs. That means many parents who used child care for their children under age six before COVID-19 and now need a school-age care option to continue working have decided to look to other avenues for care.

Of these families who will now choose an alternative option for their school-age children, 41% have decided to rely on family or friends for school-age care, 21% plan to amend their work schedules, and 45% plan to either stay home from work or to have their partner stay home from work to manage this care (adds to more than 100% because respondents could pick multiple options). While formal child care settings are not always the best solution for families, the school-age care options many parents are having to resort to this fall are concerning as they provide less stability and put more pressure on parents’ ability to work.

Few Families Used Formal Child Care for Children Under 6 Before COVID-19 Will Use Formal Child Care for School-Age Children

Families who will use formal care for their school-age children this fall Total
25 % 75 %

Affordability concerns are driving parents away from using formal child care for their school-age children. Of the parents who enrolled their 0-5 year-old child in formal child care prior to the pandemic and would now rather look to family or friends for school-age care rather than a formal provider, 67% said they would be unwilling or unable to afford formal care. Formal child care for children below the age of six is costly already, paying for an additional school-age child is not feasible for many working families.

In families with an annual household income below $50,000, both parents working, and a school-age child, only 26% of parents can work remotely.

If low-income parents are unable to find safe options with friends or family to meet their additional school-age care needs, they may be forced to stay home to care for their children themselves. Yet, low-income families are less likely to be able to work remotely. In families with an annual household income below $50,000, both parents working, and a school-age child, only 26% of parents can work remotely. That percentage increases to 29% for families with an annual household income between $50,000-100,000 and jumps to 50% for families with an annual household income above $100,000.

Low Income Families Are Less Able to Work Remotely

Percentage
Below $50,000 26 %
$50,000-$100,000 29 %
Above $100,000 50 %

Therefore, low-income families who are unable to afford formal school-age care and are unable to find friend or family care will likely be forced to amend their work schedules to stay home. Since mothers in households in which both parents work are 60% more likely than fathers to amend their work schedules to provide school-age care this fall, these decisions are likely to disproportionately limit the ability of women to remain in the labor force.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Online schooling presents a logistical nightmare for working parents across the country. While discussions about the school-age care crisis were largely theoretical during the summer months, this analysis illuminates the real decisions parents are making as the school year begins, and reveals that many parents do not have consistent, affordable, and safe options that will allow their children to learn while they continue working to support their families.

While additional resources for our nation’s child care system are critical to keeping it afloat during this crisis, the child care system does not have the capacity to take on this sudden demand for school-age care alone.

As this crisis continues to devastate our communities, Congress must provide support for the child care needs of working parents with school-aged children. For these families, one proven program already exists: 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

As we’ve written before, providing flexibility and additional resources to this program would offer working families—particularly low-income families—the combination of school-age care and proven academic support they will need this school year, while allowing parents to continue working.

For students to have the necessary environment to learn remotely, for parents to have the ability to return to work, and for our economy to get back on its feet, Congress must address the demand for school-age care capable of sustaining families throughout the school year.

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