This story was co-published with The Washington Post.
Evie Ebert and her husband are in survival mode when it comes to juggling working from home with caring for their 4- and 1-year-old children.
Ebert, a technologist in higher education, took several weeks of paid leave when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered their day-care and prekindergarten programs in late March. Then she and her husband, a college professor, worked in staggered shifts. When the school year ended, he assumed the role of full-time caregiver.
“We are trying to make arrangements week-to-week and hope to survive that way. But we can’t function this way indefinitely,” Ebert said.
Ebert lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s 30-page plan for reopening the state’s economy makes only a passing mention of child-care centers. Ebert said she is “operating under the assumption” that their day care will not reopen this summer. Kindergarten in the fall for her son is a “question mark.” The silence from state and local governments about a plan for child care, she said, has been “deafening.”
Parents have struggled to find child care during the coronavirus pandemic as many of the day-care and preschool programs attended by some 5 million U.S. children closed or were available to only essential workers. As states reopen their economies, some, such as Maryland, have yet to issue a specific plan for child-care facilities. Others have said they can reopen by complying with a patchwork of new safety regulations set by states, cities and counties. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its own set of recommendations this week.
The crisis has pushed the country’s fragile child-care ecosystem to the brink. Facilities in an industry with already-small profit margins struggled to access state and federal aid as first-come, first-served small-business loans ran out. They are now facing costly safety precautions, such as limiting class sizes and purchasing masks, gloves and sanitizing cleaner. Industry groups predict that one-third to half of child-care centers may not reopen at all.
So as parents return to work, there will be fewer available day-care slots and probably higher tuition rates. Decisions will have to be made about the safety risks associated with sending young children into less-controlled environments where social distancing is not possible. There will be calculations about whether older children are able to stay home alone or even help care for younger siblings. And the collapse of the system is likely to be particularly devastating for women’s employment.
“We’re creating a situation where parents — and particularly women, because we know the bulk of this will fall on women — will be forced to choose between staying at home or going back to work,” said Mallory McMaster.
McMaster, who runs a communications firm in Cleveland, has had her 2-year-old at home since Ohio’s day cares closed on March 26. She and her husband do not know whether their son will go back when day cares begin reopening on May 31 with new safety protocols. She is on “kid duty” in the mornings; her husband takes the afternoons.
“My career is something that’s important to me, and all of a sudden, all of our plans and the balance in our homes has kind of been taken away,” McMaster said.
Women who work in the child-care industry would also be hit hard by mass day-care closures. More than 90 percent of the country’s 1.2 million child-care workers are women.
Even before the pandemic, the availability of safe and affordable child care was key to keeping mothers in the workforce. Princeton University-trained economist So Kubota has tied women’s declining workforce participation rates over the past 20 years to the rising cost of child care, showing a 13 percent decline for mothers with small children.
Before the pandemic, the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress reported a 12 percent drop in maternal workforce participation when families have trouble finding child care, with no corresponding effect on fathers.
“My concern is that if child care feels unsafe to people or is not available, it is going to be mom who stays home in the vast majority of cases,” said Katie Hamm, the center’s vice president for early childhood policy.
Adding to the crush are more than 50 million school-age children in 48 states that have canceled classes for the remainder of the year who are facing a summer without camps and supervised activities.
In Missouri, the state’s stay-at-home order did not mandate the closure of day-care centers, but nearly half shuttered during the pandemic because of county-level directives or their own safety or financial concerns.
When Republican Gov. Mike Parson began reopening the state, he told workers they must return to work as businesses reopen or risk losing their jobs — and any coronavirus-related employment benefits.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a mother of three young sons who is poised to challenge Parson in November’s gubernatorial election, called for more child-care assistance for parents as they return to work.
“It goes way beyond is a day care open or not,” Galloway said in an interview.
“Women leaving the workforce or cutting back hours has an impact on future career opportunities, promotions, equitable pay — these issues are family issues. It’s not isolated to the woman in the household and has consequences on a family’s future economic opportunity,” she added.
Parson has said he will use $66 million in federal recovery funds for additional child-care subsidies for lower-income families and grants for facilities that remained open during the pandemic to care for the children of essential workers.
Nationally, Congress is weighing whether to provide an additional $7 billion in child-care grants in a fourth stimulus package of $3 trillion that the Democratic-controlled House passed last week. The package faces opposition in the GOP-led Senate. Some child-care advocates say the sum would not be enough to shore up the industry.
For now, Ebert in Maryland is trying to “push through” by taking things one day at a time. She knows other parents in less financially stable and equitable child-rearing situations are really scrambling. When she posted on Twitter last week about child care during the pandemic, she got thousands of responses. One mother said she was in a “simmering state of rage.” Another joked that a “26-year-old single guy” must have come up with the reopening plan in her state.
“The quiet around childcare moving forward is deafening,” Ebert tweeted. “There is no money to be made from it and the government knows women will continue to provide it invisibly and uncompensated, because there is no other choice.”