Summer is one of the only times of the year when working moms know that daily child care is going to fall apart. Usually, they can plan for it, sending their kids off to kayak at a summer camp or to swim programs at the YMCA.

But what happens when those options disappear? 

So far this year, when child care has crumbled, moms have left work, cut their hours or taken on additional labor at home. Now, as a summer with reduced child care options draws near, the threat to mothers in the labor force is omnipresent. 

More than 60 percent of the summer camps returning in 2021 will be operating at limited capacity. Costs have also gone up, making some programs more expensive — and thus, inaccessible — to families this year. Other summer programs will not return at all, forced to pause operations for another year after a devastating 2020 cut into business. 

So in the second pandemic summer, mothers will likely be in one of three positions: Passing care off to family members, taking it on themselves and bearing a summer of additional burden after a year that added unimaginable new ones, or leaving work altogether. 

How that shakes out may not be reflected in national statistics, which capture the economy in averages. But it’ll be a stark reality for the moms who are still, after a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on their professional lives, taking on the majority of the caregiving at home. 

“We can probably anticipate that this summer will bring additional stress and burden to parents in general, but particularly to mothers, and I would venture to guess that we will not see that show up in the data as we currently measure employment,” said Misty Heggeness, principal economist and senior adviser at the U.S. Census Bureau. 

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Experts say that the data also will not likely show the teenagers who are home and help with the child care because their younger sibling’s camp isn’t operating, or grandparents who will be asked to step in and watch the kids.

“There’s a bunch of informal labor — maybe one parent is going part-time in the summer or maybe you’re offering grandparents the opportunity [or] imposing on grandparents some child care responsibilities in the summer,” said Michael Madowitz, an economist with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “Just because that becomes so diffuse, it’s not clear to me how well we’re going to be able to capture that.” 

The kids — and parents — who will most likely be left behind are families of color. Already, mothers of color with lower levels of education have been forced out of work at higher rates than other moms because they are more likely to be in in-person jobs, and therefore have to choose between child care or work, Heggeness said. 

Nearly half of all working moms — 3.5 million — were not actively working in April 2020, largely because of child care needs. About 1.8 million women are still out of work compared to the start of the pandemic. 

Work is trickling back, but only because jobs in the high-contact fields women dominate are returning. About 56 percent of the job gains last month went to women because the hospitality industry, where the majority of workers are women, added the most positions.

The second industry that bounced back the most: Education jobs in the public sector. Those jobs are back now that many schools have resumed in-person learning, but it’s unclear what will happen in the summer, even when taking into account that work drops off for most teachers in the summer.

But even if jobs held by mothers are returning, it’s all a nonstarter if there is no one to care for their children.

“To the extent that those moms start coming back to work at higher levels as the economy continues to open, they will need a safe space for their kids this summer,” Heggeness said. “And if they don’t have it, then that is going to impede their ability to engage in paid labor outside the house. It’s going to be a particularly prickly issue for parents in the lower end of their earnings distribution and for parents who don’t have access to remote work.”

Camps across the country know the role they play in summer for both children and their parents, and many are expecting to return, said Tom Rosenberg, the president and CEO of the American Camp Association. According to a May survey by the American Camp Association, about 46 percent of summer camps are seeing higher interest from new campers as compared to the same time in 2019. 

“We are seeing incredible demand for camp, and especially for new families who haven’t even been thinking about camp up until the pandemic,” Rosenberg said. “All of us as parents realize our kids need in-person summer programming, not just this summer, but going forward. And how do we afford that?”

Families will be juggling this with women of many generations to get through it.

Michael Madowitz, economist at Center for American Progress

That will be a central question for parents trying to navigate work and child care this summer. At many summer programs, costs have gone up, not just for additional sanitation and COVID-related expenses, but in insurance, staffing and food. And because capacity is not at the same level, the cost per camper may be higher, Rosenberg said. 

Camps, he said, “are trying to fill their spots, hire staff, and everything has gone up. They can only pass along some of that to the families.” 

The other challenge is recruiting workers. At summer camps, which employ more than a million workers, some of the workforce is international — about 25,000 cultural exchange counselors and 6,000 support workers from other countries staff camps every summer. But immigration bans put in place by the Trump administration were removed only in March, Rosenberg said, and paperwork delays, combined with existing travel bans, are making it difficult to bring on staff as usual. By this time in a regular year, all spots would already be filled.

The bulk of the workforce is typically high school- or college-age students, and attracting those groups is also proving difficult. Many are burned out from the past year and opting out of summer work, said Allison Colman, the director of health at the National Recreation and Park Association, the national nonprofit that represents local parks and recreation agencies. 

The same is true for teachers who staff camps in the summer. Exhaustion from the past year and other obligations, including new summer learning programs, are limiting how many teachers can work in summer camps and parks. 

“There are some pretty large gaps in a lot of our communities that need to be filled,” Colman said. “We’re starting to hear from folks that if they are not able to fill those positions, that could result in the cancellation of camps or the reduction of camps, or having to make decisions about where camps are offered in the community.”

Colman said camps are already talking about how they might decide who gets a spot. 

“It’s on their radar, and we’ve heard directors say that if they are forced to reduce camps or have to cancel them, they will prioritize those underserved communities to make sure that that those kids of parents and caregivers that absolutely have to work and are essential or lower income will get the care that they need,” Colman said.

Additional funding in the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s stimulus package, could help keep open some camps that serve marginalized communities, offering respite to parents who don’t have the option to work remotely. 

The package, passed in March, allocated about $30 billion for summer and after-school programs — much more than states typically receive. But that money only just started going out and states have until 2024 to spend it. 

“A lot of folks are scrambling. That’s just the reality — they’re just trying to get through the school year, now they want to plan for summer,” said Aaron Dworkin, the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. Some states, like California, have already been planning for summer and will be better positioned this year, others will use the money to bolster programs in upcoming years. 

“We’re talking about serving the most vulnerable, marginalized groups. Middle and upper-middle class families will have the resources, find the resources and put their kids in amazing programs,” Dworkin said. “It’s everybody else who has been disproportionately impacted and affected by all the negative consequences of COVID.” 

That responsibility — to kids and their parents, and especially moms — has spurred other camps to offer expanded options. 

Kids skipping rope.
Fresh Air Fund attendees skip rope during a camp in New York City. (Allison Engkvist/Daily)

This summer, the Fresh Air Fund, a camp in New York City that is free for underserved kids, is expanding a program it offered last year where it takes summer activities straight into communities that need them. Instead of offering overnight camp this year, Fresh Air Fund is going into neighborhoods with the highest rates of poverty in four of New York’s five boroughs. 

In partnership with the city, the program closes down streets and provides programming for kids ages 5 to 12. 

To ensure they are helping parents who need the care, the program started offering daily sign-up opportunities in addition to weekly sign-ups options for parents who work non-traditional hours and can only put their kids in camp on certain days, said Fatima Shama, the program’s executive director.

After a rollout into 10 neighborhoods in 2020, the program will be in 12 this year, allowing it to offer kids 20,000 slots — and that’s just in one of the programs available this year. They offer other opportunities for hybrid summer learning and recreation, also at no cost. 

“It really drives our purpose to make sure we can serve, and in particular, serve the families we know don’t have other options,” Shama said. “If you’re low-wage, disconnected from traditional resources, limited English proficiency, already exhausted from a number of things you’re juggling, your child is going to be most at risk for missing out, and summer’s really important.”

Still, programs like Fresh Air Fund are unique, and there will likely be kids who fall through the cracks because options are limited. Parents will have to bear that. 

There will be some, like single moms, who may stay at work and not reduce their hours because they can’t, said Bauer at Brookings. 

“We’re not going to see as big a drop in female labor force participation because that mom really needs her job,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. ‘But there are still consequences.”

Often, those aren’t measured, particularly the pile up of invisible labor at home that is too often relegated to moms. It already tends to go up in the summer, with moms pushing through to stay at work and keep their kids busy in the summer months, and this year it’ll likely go up even more, said Madowitz of CAP. 

“Families will be juggling this with women of many generations to get through it,” he said. 

The reason this type of labor and its impact on the workforce is not measured, said Heggeness at the Census Bureau, is because the field of economics has been historically White and male. Many of the people who wrote the surveys that are now used to measure the impact of the pandemic did not take into account the nuances in how women’s relationship with the workforce is affected by the caregiving responsibilities that are put on them more than they’re put on men.

“The way that we produce national statistics is very much driven by a historically male dominated perspective of the economy and the world,” Heggeness said. “We are left struggling to understand what is going on with work and women.” 

What will be happening under the surface, even if jobs reports show improved numbers for women in the workforce, is a degree of burden that our statistics don’t measure, she said. This summer, with options limited, that burden is sure to grow.  

“The kind of unpaid domestic burden that women experience is very, very unequal still in our society,” Heggeness said. “And so if we have these mothers who are ‘keeping up’ with others — They’ve all got to be going crazy.”