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Covering the Pandemic Child Care Crisis

Experts discuss how existing inequities have been exacerbated in the strained sector.

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America’s system of child care was already seriously strained by surging expenses, high staff turnover and dwindling capacity before the pandemic upended everything.

“COVID really just highlighted the pre-existing situations and challenges of the early childhood system across the nation,” said Dionne Dobbins, the senior director of research at Child Care Aware of America, a research and advocacy group. “When COVID hit, it was layering it on top of a very fragile child care system — and, you know, some would say it even shattered.”

Dobbins was among the experts assembled for the kickoff panel of a recent Education Writers Association event on covering the education and care of children from birth to age 3.

Panelists provided a brief overview of the patchwork child care system in the U.S. that, under typical circumstances, serves about 13 million kids under the age of six with some form of non-parental care each week, how it has been impacted by the pandemic and what’s needed for recovery.

Speakers also shared ideas for journalists to explore in local stories about how race, gender and class factor into every facet of the child care system.

Child Care Often More Pricey Than College Tuition

“The fundamental fact is it is very expensive to care for children,” said Rasheed Malik, a senior policy analyst on early childhood at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. “Beyond that, this is an essentially private system that, especially when we’re talking about before preschool, is almost entirely funded by parents.”

A lack of adequate federal investment in child care is the driver behind the affordability issues faced by parents, Dobbins argued.

“The price of child care in many states is more expensive than tuition at a state college for one year,” she said.

The experts predicted a very different looking system on the other side of “recovery” — one with fewer formal child care centers and more reliant on family and friends to provide parents with greater flexibility to accommodate non-traditional working hours and part-time work.

And they see recovery as a very long, complicated road ahead because of how dependent America’s largely private child care system is on the overall economic health and workforce opportunities — especially for mothers.

“It’s not a given that demand will snap back to 100 percent of where it was before, because that’s a complicated dance to try and get back into work while also trying to get the kid back into child care. One sort of needs to precede the other and vice-versa,” said Malik.

Dobbins said data gathered by Child Care Aware indicates that a majority of states were already seeing declines in family child care, as well as the number of child care centers, in 2018 and 2019.

Unequal Burdens Impact Women in the Workforce

Panelists said the lack of access to child care and increasing prices put the biggest squeeze on working lower- and middle-class parents. In addition, the coronavirus outbreak has added health and safety concerns into the mix for parents of every socioeconomic group.

“It’s an economic issue for our society as a whole and especially women,” said Alycia Hardy, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an anti-poverty advocacy group in Washington. “Women are often the default parent when it comes to having to leave the workforce to care for children.”

Workforce issues within the child care system – which is largely operated by women – have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The panel’s moderator Megan Leonhardt, who covers financial issues at CNBC, asked panelists to share how small business owners and hourly workers in the sector dealt with temporary closures during stay-at-home orders and reopening among state and federal guidelines for limited capacity.

Many child care workers had to seek work elsewhere during the shutdowns. Malik encouraged reporters to provide some context when writing about this workforce. For example, 40 percent of child care workers are people of color, and their average wage is less than $12 per hour. In addition, he noted, child care workers have not been prioritized in many states’ vaccine rollouts, even though they provide an essential service.

‘A Tremendous Blind Spot’

“This just reveals a tremendous blind spot in our leaders’ and our policymakers’ thinking,” Malik said. “And it really just makes me fearful that we’re going to have a smaller, less trustful, less diverse child care system when we are able to kind of try and stand back up.”

For local reporters, important stories can be told by examining how child care providers have used their portion of the roughly $13 billion in federal relief dollars designated to support them over the past year.

The federal aid is meant to help them with increased operating expenses, fixed costs such as rent, utilities and regular supplies, and even copayments for families struggling with lost wages.

The emergency aid is “a good start to try and recover some of the massive losses that happened within the child care industry, but it’s certainly not enough,” said Hardy of the Center for Law and Social Policy.