Leaders must address child care if we want to reopen schools this fall

Leaders must address child care if we want to reopen schools this fall
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Many school districts intend to continue distance learning in the fall, as others are still grappling with whether and how to reopen. Unfortunately, missing in these deliberations is the recognition of the role that teachers play as child care providers and conversation about how virtual learning will complicate child care responsibilities for millions of working parents. As Congress deliberates how to best support schools and parents, it has to provide for child care or risk further debilitating these recovery efforts and enabling some irreversible negative effects on our nation.

The coronavirus made clear what working parents already knew, which is that child care in this country is essential. While not typically considered child care, parents of almost 57 million kids rely on schools as daily child care. Continued disruptions in schedules in the fall will have devastating impacts on parents, particularly those struggling to rebound financially from the downturn, and will be a major blow for the economy.

During the spring, schools and child care programs shut down along with businesses in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In a survey that our organization conducted with Morning Consult at the height of the crisis, parents were struggling more than ever to find child care, and were forced to make the tradeoffs between child care and work responsibilities, such as logging in less work hours and moving their schedules.

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That might have been manageable for a few months, but parents are tired and worried about the health and education of their kids. Even companies are worried about the child care responsibilities of their employees. If the nation is to start going back to normal, parents will first need somewhere for their kids to be cared for and educated while they work. Congress has rightly but separately discussed funding for child care and schools. It has no plans for addressing the child care needs of young students and their parents who will face additional schedule disruptions in the fall.

Lots of parents will be fortunate enough to cobble together “education pods” or “micro schools” and rely on family members or friends for help for a few more months. But for low income households or single parents, who have been notably devastated, finding an ongoing balance between work and child care responsibilities may be impossible. Such households are less likely to have family members who can care for their children and are much less likely to be able to work remotely. They are also more likely to have a difficult search for accessible and affordable settings.

While these issues can cause unsolvable problems for these households, whom we should focus on assisting first, many parents fortunate enough to work from home still need relief and support for the education of their kids. For parents privileged to work from home, providing sufficient child care while helping with virtual learning and juggling work responsibilities might not be feasible. How can we ensure parents can head back to work, allow kids to learn in safe places, and finally end the pandemic?

New York City has promising plans to provide child care for 100,000 kids. On the other side of the country, the superintendent of San Diego County has advocated for after school programs as a critical need. Both solutions are certainly steps in the right direction which more leaders at every level need to consider. However, state and local budgets have been stretched more than ever, so Congress must act to fund these key systems.

Indeed, child care must be included in the next relief package. Expanding the federal grant program for after school and summer learning initiatives would support families and communities in distance learning. More funds for the Child Care and Development Block Grant would also ensure more families can access and afford essential child care. Finally, any education relief funds needs to include robust resources dedicated to child care for kids in school. Congress must take this issue seriously if we are to prevent another catastrophe for workers, their families, and the economy.

Linda Smith is director of the early childhood initiative with the Bipartisan Policy Center and served as an architect of the military child care system. Kathlyn McHenry is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.