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What Will Parents Choose? Parent Preferences and a Disrupted Child Care System

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on our nation and the economic security of America’s working families. Through this crisis, we are left with a number of unknowns: What is the safest timeline for reopening child care? What child care choices will parents make post-COVID-19? What safeguards should be put in place to protect the nation’s children, families, and child care workers? This blog post attempts to address the many unknowns and to better understand how COVID-19 will impact the future of children and working families.

Among the 36.5 million people who have filed for unemployment in the last eight weeks are many working parents now looking for new jobs, while many other parents are working remotely without the support of child care. Meanwhile, millions of essential workers who are needed to keep this nation moving forward—including health care professionals, grocery store employees, banking professionals, and child care providers—are serving on the frontlines and forced to put their health at risk.

At present, social distancing measures have created a new normal for working families across the country. In a survey of working parents with young children conducted by BPC and Morning Consult, 86% of households experienced a change in their work situation, including a reduction in hours or required telework. The same survey found that despite the closure of nearly two-thirds of the nation’s child care programs, almost half of respondents have been able to care for their children in their home during this crisis.

It remains uncertain how long this pandemic will last, and while some states have already begun to relax social isolation measures, researchers at Harvard University recently found that some social distancing measures may need to continue through 2020. As we begin to prepare for recovery and the child care landscape post-COVID-19, we must ask what will the demand for child care be in our nation’s post-COVID recovery period.

The child care industry cannot assume the demand for child care will remain the same once social isolation guidance is lifted. First, the Congressional Budget Office has projected unemployment rates to average 15% in the second and third quarters of 2020. CBO’s average projected unemployment rates for 2020 and 2021 are 11.4% and 10.1%, respectively, a dramatic increase from 3.7% in 2019. The expectation that fewer households will be in the workforce may reduce the demand for child care for the nation’s families. It also may mean an increase in the number of adults willing to provide family child care in their homes.

National surveys and parent focus groups conducted over the last six months show that trust is the first and most important thing parents look for in selecting child care. Yet, this trust is difficult to build—and will be difficult to rebuild post-pandemic—when child care providers are working within a broken industry. The national median hourly wage for child care workers in 2019 was $11.72, and across the country, more than half were part of at least one public support program. Along with low wages, the majority of child care workers lack access to benefits through their employer, such as health care and paid sick leave, which may lead to higher departure rates and an erosion of parental trust.

As we look forward to economic recovery in the midst of the pandemic, we need to better understand the comfort level of parents and their willingness to bring their children back into public settings, including child care programs. The BPC/Morning Consult survey found that 75% of working parents of young children are concerned that returning their children to child care settings will put their families at risk for COVID-19 exposure. Also, most Americans have expressed unwillingness to return to their daily activities because of the pandemic, with 87% of Americans willing to wait either until there is a significant decline in new cases or they disappear altogether, or until a vaccine is developed, according to a recent Gallup survey. Our nation’s previous experience over a century ago with the 1918 influenza pandemic has shown that subsequent waves of high death rates can take place if strict social isolation restrictions are not enforced.

Given this, there are several critical questions that warrant consideration. Will working parents be willing to place their young children in group child care post-pandemic, or will they seek other options? In the coming months, will the new world of work impact the need for child care? Will more parents continue to work remotely until a COVID-19 vaccine is available? What can child care providers do to ease parents’ concerns? What can states do to assess parent demand as the economy restarts and as we enter the post-pandemic world? How will the child care workforce respond to reopening and how will we insure their health and safety? Our ability to answer these questions have serious implications for the long-term viability of the child care industry.

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