COVID-19: Are the Kids Alright?

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Yesterday the Governor of Virginia cancelled school for the remainder of the semester with the hope that things can resort to some level of normalcy in the fall. While this makes a lot of sense for the containment of the pandemic, it causes a whole host of issues for families, the most prominent being: who will take care of these kids?

I’ve seen dozens of websites that talk about how to talk to children, resources for children of all ages, things to do, virtual play. A Calgary girl has started an online storytelling site. Scholastic is providing free daily courses for kids stuck at home. Disney has virtual rides available online.

But who is taking care of these children? For the 18 percent of parents and 27 percent of moms that do not work out of the house, this isn’t a radical change. They can handle it. However, 73 percent of mothers work outside the home and are either continuing to do so or are working remotely from home, depending on their occupation.

Last week the Governor of Oregon called for “World War II-capacity daycare” for public health workers. This is a good thing, but it isn’t just the public health workers who are in a pinch. Who is taking care of the other kids? I know that grandparents are being brought into the fold to help out, but that is problematic, too, first because of the potential for contamination and exposure, and second because not all grandparents are old—many are still working.

I found many an article or blog about issues related to childcare and the coronavirus. For instance, in yesterday’s New York Post is “The coronavirus child care talk you need to have with your nanny.” I’m thinking that nannies aren’t a thing that most parents are dealing with right now, or ever. An article in Fortune magazine interviewed a working mother from Toronto who has to “pretend not to be here” when working at home. Her husband is a community college professor whose school has closed. Thus, she has backup. The same article illustrates the changes for a mother who is chief diversity and inclusion officer at McKinsey, one of the world’s largest consulting firms. For these people, there are challenges, but they have advantages per their positions and place in society that many other families do not.

A March 5th article—only a few weeks ago—talks about ‘the need to “negotiate childcare solutions” and taking a “look at your calendars.” Seems a bit archaic now. By March 24, there is no one to negotiate because childcare, from a business standpoint, has gone away. It ceased to exist even before Virginia’s governor closed the door on all organizations that serve or work with more than 10 people. And although the Governor’s plan allows for childcare, would you want to take your child to a daycare center right now? Or even do someone down the street who has offered? Seems like a risky proposition.

Again, for those of us who work in front of a monitor, we can figure this out. It isn’t easy. Nor is it convenient or efficient. This is a real situation for me and my partner. We are “very young” grandparents whose granddaughter lives with us. While the mother goes to work in the healthcare field, one of us takes care of the granddaughter. All day. We are the backup. But the cost to our business is significant because we both work in it. It means we aren’t as efficient and can’t get as much done. So there is a cost that is invisible to many but right in front of our view every moment of the day.

And herein lies the problem: the focus in the media has largely been on white-collar, business-type parents who are able to work from home. The real challenge is for the workers at grocery stores and other essential workplaces, including healthcare providers. Auto mechanics are still open, and places like Home Depot and Lowes are to a degree also essential. Yesterday I had to FedEx a proposal. FedEx was there. Office Depot was there. And today I’ll do the same thing. Produce another proposal. Send it out. And have people at these businesses will still be there to help me, because they aren’t at home. They’re working.

The flip of the coin is that too many people aren’t working, which translates into not earning. This may have solved some of their childcare issues, but at an incredible cost: their livelihood. For many of these parents, they won’t make rent this month. They can’t afford groceries, or the cable bill, or electricity and heat, and soon air conditioning. And they probably can’t afford health care.

COVID-19 has changed our landscape. Some say these changes are lasting. They are “for good.” I am more cynical. I think we’ll go back to things just the way they were. And we’ve been told, ad nauseum, that “there is no playbook for this.” And there isn’t. The burden is extreme and we all have to figure this one out.

While we do, let’s keep in mind those who really have much fewer options than the rest of us. As deep as my worries are—and my worries lay extraordinarily deep about COVID-19—others have much greater and immediate issues to deal with. We need not simply worry about them: we need to find ways to help, through policy and through action. Let us hope that as the Senate continues to grapple with this aid bill that may become more apparent today, it must seriously consider some of these issues for families in significant need. While we have to consider larger, macro-economic issues caused by this extreme situation, we have to think at the grassroots levels, too.

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