The start of the school year was supposed to bring sorely needed relief for parents struggling with child care. But the surge of the delta variant has forced dozens of school districts around the U.S. to postpone their return to the classroom, frustrating millions who had been eager to return to work.
At least 90,000 children have had to isolate from their classmates because of exposure to COVID-19 since the beginning of the month, according to an analysis from The Hill. That number is likely to climb as more schools open in September and students face new risks from a virus that had largely brushed over them earlier in the pandemic.
“Delta is much more transmissible than earlier variants and it is reaching kids, so I think parents are right to be concerned if kids head back to school in a congregate setting,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“We can definitely see that hospitalizations of children are at a record high now, and earlier in the pandemic, kids were less affected than they are now,” she added.
With their children in unprecedented danger of contracting the coronavirus, many parents have been plunged back into a bind, with severe implications for the economic recovery. Those who either lost their jobs due to the pandemic or had to step away from work to look after their children are once again facing a significant barrier on the way back.
Economists say it’s difficult to know just how many people have been forced out of the labor market specifically because of child care responsibilities. But 1.6 million Americans were out of work and did not search for a job in July because of a reason related to the pandemic, according to the Labor Department.
“It forces parents to make a hard choice. It puts you in a situation where you could be called at any moment to pick up your kid immediately and take them home indefinitely for goodness knows how long,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.
“That is just not compatible with most jobs in our economy,” she continued. “Jobs in hospitals, in schools, restaurants, hotels, delivery jobs, warehouse jobs — those all cannot operate that way.”
The onset of the pandemic wiped out roughly 8.8 percent of jobs in public education as schools were forced to shutter, but Pollak said the delta surge is unlikely to trigger deeper layoffs. Instead, she expects delays to office reopenings driven by school closures to limit the recovery of other jobs reliant on work travel and office presence.
“It will reduce demand for those central business district service industries — the restaurants and cafes, the dry cleaners, laundromats, salons, spas. Those kinds of places are likely to actually respond by cutting jobs or delaying people's start dates,” she said.
The August jobs report, set to be released Friday, will give policymakers some insight into how the economy has responded to the delta surge. The U.S. added 943,000 jobs last month, according to the most recent report, but that data was compiled before the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention first raised alarms about the transmissibility of the delta variant.
Though it may still take several months to assess the total impact of the delta variant, economists expect that women and Black and Hispanic workers, who were more likely to lose their jobs amid the onset of the pandemic, will continue bearing disproportionate burdens.
Pollak said that while both mothers and fathers have pared back their work during the pandemic, a greater proportion of women have dropped out of the labor force entirely, while men have primarily reduced their hours.
Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corporation, said her research has shown that the more children a woman had, the more likely she was to drop out of the labor force during the pandemic. Labor force participation among women with three or more children fell by 4 percentage points, she said.
“I don't know the extent to which working mothers, mothers who were working at some point or who wanted to work — I don't know that they'll ever really recover from the pandemic. I hope that they do,” Edwards said.
Prolonged periods of unemployment are often red flags for hiring managers, a threat for millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Edwards said that while she’s unsure how employers will interpret coronavirus-related absences, millions of workers, particularly women, have already been forced to make career-altering sacrifices.
“In between ... are all of the women who have made concessions, who have pulled back, who have turned down jobs and turned down promotions, who have scaled back their work, who have earned less and gone part-time in order to accommodate child care,” she said.
“You don't have to pull back your labor force participation for this pandemic to have affected you as a worker,” she added.
While there is still significant uncertainty about how badly the delta surge could hinder the economy, economists and health experts largely agree that curbing the pandemic remains the best way to protect it.
More than 1.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were administered Friday, according to White House officials, the highest single-day total in nearly two months. But with no COVID-19 vaccines approved for children under 12, health experts have urged the Biden administration to step up its efforts to compel schools to impose stronger health safeguards.
“Not managing COVID means letting COVID manage us, and that's what's happening right now. It's just running rampant,” Raifman said.
“We all agreed that keeping kids in school was of paramount importance,” she continued. “Not having commonsense prevention policies like indoor mask mandates in place means that we get the worst of all worlds.”