Yes, many school-age kids will be e-learning this fall, but parents still need child care solutions

Yes, many school-age kids will be e-learning this fall, but parents still need child care solutions
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Across the country, working parents are facing the unthinkable — another several months, or maybe even longer — of full or partial online learning for their kids who normally would have been in school. These parents have the impossible task of reconciling three competing but essential priorities: earning a living to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, protecting the health and wellbeing of their family in the face of COVID-19 and ensuring their children can learn and don’t fall behind in school.  

Balancing these three priorities is challenging for all parents, but it is even more daunting for low-income families, those facing greater health risks and families who face inequities in terms of access to educational and health resources and to employment options. On top of that, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on after school and child care providers, forcing many programs to close, leaving working families with even fewer options.

This is a problem for all of us — regardless of whether we have children or whether we see child care as parents’ private concern — because helping parents balance these priorities is essential for our country to function and for our economy to recover from this pandemic. While there has been a lot of attention on schools’ struggles in trying to figure out whether and how to reopen, and on the tenuous choices facing working parents, there has been relatively little focus on what should be done to help parents deal with this crisis. 

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We need to stop wringing our hands and start coming up with concrete child care solutions for working families, and push for the funding to implement them. Federal, state and local policymakers in education, social services, child care and public health, as well as the private sector and philanthropies, can work together to help parents whose kids are enrolled in online learning to balance their competing priorities and stay safe through the following strategies — all of which will require significant investment to bring to fruition:

Stabilize and support after school programs and caregivers across a range of settings. Financial and other incentives — like grants, training and technical assistance — should be used to attract and support providers during the pandemic programs. These incentives could also be used to attract home-based providers, which would provide more child care options to parents. Paying decent salaries and providing benefits to caregivers are also critical given the important role they play in supporting children and families and the risks they face amid COVID-19.

Provide flexible child care supports that can meet families’ varying needs. Some parents want group care, while some want care in a family child care home, and others would prefer care  in their own home or with a few other families. Policies and supports need to allow parents to use the form of care that works for their family’s individual needs and risk factors, while ensuring their children’s health, safety and education.  

Invest in subsidies and after school programs to help families pay for child care. It’s impossible to know exactly how much parents will need to spend on child care during the pandemic, but the Urban Institute estimates that parents with kids in partial or full-time distance learning will need double or triple the hours of child care than they needed before the pandemic. While the cost  parents paid before the pandemic varied widely — depending on the type of care and where a family lived — parents who paid for care spent an average of $100 to $125 a week per child. Investing more resources in child care subsidies and after school programs would help families afford these growing costs without facing further economic instability.

Ensure caregivers can support children’s learning while keeping them safe. Many working parents and schools will have another partner in children’s education and care over the next several months. It’s critical that the programs and people caring for children while parents are working are equipped to support kids’ learning. All caregivers — including after school program staff, family child care providers, and others in home-based settings — need access to training, technology and the internet; they need ways to communicate with schools; and they need access to equipment and supplies to protect their health and the kids’ health.

Our country’s ability to recover from this pandemic depends on working parents. Policymakers and philanthropies can take steps to support after school and child care providers, and to ensure working parents can keep their families safe and economically stable while supporting their kids’ academic success.

Gina Adams is a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute and directs the Low-Income Working Families project and the Kids in Context initiative. She is a national expert on factors that shape the affordability, quality and supply of child care and early education services and the ability of low-income families to benefit from them.