Child care in the U.S. is becoming an almost indelible problem.
Even before the pandemic, families struggled to find affordable child care. Now they scramble to find any care at all.
"One of the most challenging aspects for parents these last few months was how quickly schools and daycare centers closed and therefore, how little time they had to plan," said Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, a network of caregivers.
Almost immediately, many parents became stopgap teachers and child-care providers, all the while juggling working from home.
"This pandemic could have a catastrophic toll on America's child-care system," said Simon Workman, director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress, a policy organization in Washington, D.C.
The Center has new research estimating that the pandemic could permanently wipe out half the country's licensed child-care slots — about 4.5 million places. Particularly hard hit would be Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah, which would lose more than 60% of their states' child-care supply.
The implications for working families will be profound, according to Workman, especially for women, "who shoulder a disproportionate share of in-home family care-giving responsibilities."
Caught between an office that hopes to reopen soon and her daughter's need for supervision, Yvonne Nguyen Ruey, 36, feels she may be asked to choose.
Her daughter, a second-grader, still needs a lot of guidance with schoolwork. "I'm scared to lose my position but at the same time cannot just leave my daughter," Ruey said.
Ruey, a dental hygienist in Los Angeles County, points out that she is in one of the highest-risk categories for contracting Covid-19.
"If they decide to open, I have to say yes, I have to return," she said. "My husband is working at home in video production, but he's in meetings all day.
"No way he can take time off and prepare food and snacks."
The office has been asking who's available, and Ruey, as well as other staffers who are parents, are anxious.
The practice is asking for a stark available/not available status, and Ruey is afraid the dentist will choose the hygienists without young kids.
"I feel as if I have to choose my daughter or work, and none of the camps or schools are open," she said. "How are we going to make it back to normal?"
This summer could look quite a bit different, Allen says.
If camps and daycare centers stay closed or shelter-in-place guidelines remain in effect, online resources will flourish.
"There is an endless array of summer programming to meet any interest, and teach everything from teamwork to problem solving," Allen said. "We're seeing camp and program directors getting super-creative."
Some offerings Allen has seen include online summer camps for music and video production, forming rock bands or producing puppet shows with full props and sets.
There's no one answer to the child-care conundrum.
Allen anticipates that more families will turn to in-home care when parents return to their workplaces. In-home care has the advantage of mitigating some health concerns.
"It controls the number of people with whom your child has contact," he said. "It allows a management of your and your child's environment, such as strict house rules on hand-washing and preventative measures such as wearing a mask."
Beyond the specific amount to pay for child care, says Tarif Carson, a certified financial planner at Facet Wealth in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the top concerns are safety, logistics and overall finances.
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"The pandemic is here, but it's not going to last forever," Carson said. Take a broad look at all the factors in your situation, from your monthly budget to future plans. "If you were planning on going on vacation, maybe the savings you got back from [a canceled trip] could be earmarked to bring someone into the home [to help with child care]."
Carson's 2-year-old daughter was in daycare, but the suspended payment for that service means cash is freed up for other purposes.
Parents with some control over their work can try to create a more flexible time arrangement. Carson tweaked his schedule so that two days a week he works in the evenings and spends time with his daughter during the day.
Jessica Prochniak, 35, a digital solutions architect in Portland, Oregon, has been balancing work and caring for her 2-year-old son. "Our daycare was closed for April, but we still had to pay full tuition to hold our spot," she said.
The center got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, waived May tuition and remains closed.
Now Prochniak and her husband split their work schedules so that one parent is always on deck. She divides her workday in two: from 6 a.m. to noon, and then from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. each night. Prochniak says she wouldn't be able to make it work without the outstanding flexibility and support of her employer, Weidenhammer.
"If we are able to pay for a nanny, we may do that for a few days a week if child care doesn't open soon," Prochniak said. "It's hard to make decisions because things keep changing."
It's difficult to contemplate committing to another type of paid care when they paid $910 per month to hold their 4-day-a-week spot.
They are uncertain about the center's timetable for reopening, and their contract requires them to give two months' notice to cancel. They had hoped to keep their son there until kindergarten, since she and her husband work full-time.
There's no way to know when or if the center will reopen. "I just try to take it week by week until we hear news that we can actually plan around," she said. "I do know that paying long-term for care we're not receiving isn't aligned with our plans.
"It's rough," she said. "I'm very glad I only have one [child]."
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