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What's a parent to do when all of the schools and daycares suddenly close? For some workers in some places, options are starting to emerge.

When San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 16, one of Jessica Campos’ first thoughts was: What about the kiddos?

The mandate that all non-essential businesses close in order to slow the spread of coronavirus included all 350 of the city’s child care centers, except those serving essential workers and following strict social distancing practices.

On March 17, Campos’s workplace, the Wu Yee Southeast Child Development Center, closed its doors, only to reopen six days later. It is now one of nine sites operating as part of San Francisco’s last-resort program for the children of frontline workers, currently available to an invite-only list of local hospital staff, public health personnel, and disaster service workers.

Officials in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles are working to set up their own emergency child care programs, an urgent bare minimum for those at the battle’s edge of the pandemic. But it leaves an untold number of workers in a lurch.

As the spread of coronavirus has brought city after city to a standstill, it has also spurred what may be the greatest global child care crisis in modern history. ”What we’re learning, and what’s gaining visibility right now, is the fact that it is child care that allows every other industry to work,” says Hannah Matthews, deputy executive director for policy at the anti-poverty nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “Parents don’t go to work without child care.”

And yet, in this moment, many of them are — or trying. In the U.S., a recent survey by Kaiser Family Foundation reported that two-thirds of Americans parents with children under 18 considered the pandemic disruptive to their lives. Nearly half of all parents earning less than $40,000 a year said that finding alternative child care during the pandemic is somewhat or very difficult. And parents most likely to find it challenging are those who earn hourly wages (45%) and who don’t have paid family leave (42%).

Whereas some families may have once been able to turn to grandparents as a reliable back-up, health officials have advised families to keep children away from older family members who are at greater risk from the coronavirus.

While health care workers are among the most affected —  one recent U.S. Census Bureau analysis calculated that 15% of health care providers have children but lack a family member in their household to provide child care — the challenge also applies to other businesses deemed essential, including grocery stores and utility companies, and those who work in the gig economy. Parents working from home are also now facing the challenge of how to literally do two jobs at once, and the challenge becomes exponentially harder for single parents or those with a special-needs child.

Some local governments are piecing together child-care safety nets, though eligibility can be limited. Wei-min Wang, an evaluation manager at the San Francisco Office of Early Care and Education, says his city hopes to grow the network to accommodate more categories of essential workers over time, such as grocery and restaurant employees. But it will take some time to understand how many families opt to send kids into the program rather than to a relative or friend. Some may also skip work and care for them alone. “It’s hard to gauge what the demand will be because we don’t know what we don’t know,” Wang says. “These are anxious times, so a lot of parents might choose to keep kids home — but not everyone might have that choice.”

For many, the solutions have been personal and informal, passing their child to another family or trading care among networks of parents and babysitters springing up across Facebook. But more governments, nonprofits, and startups are also starting to step in to fill the most dire gaps in care for emergency workers.

Governments are working with daycares to keep some open, with priority for emergency workers

In the days following San Francisco’s shelter-in-place mandate, city and state officials rallied with nonprofit providers behind the scenes to pull together a safety net for the young kids of parents on the Covid-19 front lines.

They had to figure out the answers to some difficult questions, including how to ensure classrooms are kept hygienic with children who are too young to be instructed simply to keep six feet apart. “How do you do social distancing with a two-year-old?” says Theresa Zighera, the executive director of First 5, a public commission that funds child care programs around San Francisco.

Now, along with nine other coworkers who volunteered to step in at Wu Yee Southeast, Campos is back on the job with kids five and under in a transformed setting. Her classroom capacity is down from 36 to 12. Children and staff have their temperature checked every morning and afternoon. Hand-washing and surface-cleansing are constant features between activities.

Other governments are also encouraging some child care centers to continue operating in order to fill a need, but there is a wide divergence of government support. In the U.S., states like Connecticut and North Carolina are supporting providers by offering benefits such as financial incentives or coverage for uninsured workers who get sick. Others, such as New York State, have allowed private child care operators to remain open if they chose, and are trying to place additional volunteers and educators into those centers as needed.

In Japan, after-school facilities were permitted to stay open and extend their hours to as early as 8 a.m. after the school system abruptly closed in March. These private and subsidized facilities, known as gakudos, are surging to meet new demand on top of the 1.3 million students already registered.

Governments are opening their own emergency centers

After shutting down the largest public school system in the nation on March 16, New York City set up 93 “regional enrichment centers” in empty school buildings, with 5,000 volunteers and Department of Education staffers overseeing a maximum of nine kids per classroom. With programs available for children from pre-K up to 12th grade, each center follows social-distancing protocols, with desks arranged far apart and custodial staff increasing sanitation routines to keep facilities clean. Each center comes equipped with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and kids undergo daily wellness checks, says Katie O’Hanlon, the deputy press secretary of the city’s department of education.

As in San Francisco, matching the city’s supply of child care to demand among New Yorkers is an ongoing process. As of March 31, the Department of Education has received 9,000 requests for 31,000 available seats in centers across the city’s five boroughs. “We have worked night and day to ensure they have a place at one of our sites,” O’Hanlon says. The criteria for eligibility is wide, including health care workers and first responders, grocery store and pharmacy personnel, and government workers across several city agencies. DOE will keep monitoring demand as it considers extending spots to other groups of families as quickly as it can, O’Hanlon says.  

Massachusetts and Michigan have also set up emergency centers — some in empty schools — run by their own staff and by volunteers, and available to frontline workers in several industries.

Government-run facilities take different forms elsewhere. France is running a system similar to New York City: All schools and child care programs are technically closed, but the government is operating some for the children of health care and emergency workers, staffed by teachers and principals who’ve volunteered to return to the classroom. They currently oversee 30,000 children across the country, and extra precautions are in place such as a maximum of 10 children per classroom. South Korea, too, is keeping some of its kindergartens and elementary schools open for emergency child care centers run by teachers. The government is also encouraging employers to give flexible work hours, and offer businesses monetary incentives to give workers up to ten days of unpaid leave to care for family members, according to ABC News.

The key for government-run programs, Matthews says, is making sure that they’re designed by those who know how to operate child care centers, and who understand how to meet the needs of not just the parents but the kids themselves, who may also be experiencing anxiety and trauma.

Some nonprofits stay open to emergency workers

Like other non-essential businesses, most of the 2,700 YMCAs around the U.S. have closed. But several cities have authorized the national nonprofit, which offers a range of community programs to children and adults, to keep its child care facilities open for emergency workers, including “Tier 2” individuals such as grocery store employees, educators, and utility workers, which not all states have deemed essential. Many locations are charging a daily rate of between $25 and $44, with several of them offering financial assistance and some waiving fees entirely. Similar to city programs in San Francisco and New York, they’re ensuring families that they’re taking extra precautions by limiting the adult-to-child ratio. In Volusia County, Florida, branches are checking the temperatures of children and staff three times a day, and getting kids to wash their hands every hour, according to a local news station.

Bright Horizons, which typically partners with employers to offer education and early child care on work sites or near them, is partnering with organizations like Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global and Harvard University to use 150 of its 800 centers as free daycare centers for essential workers. They’ll accept infants and children up to 6 years old, who will be taken care of by the organization’s own educators following strict safety protocols. In an interview Tuesday with Bloomberg, CEO Steve Kramer said the organization has opened three centers already in Seattle, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and plans to open the other ones soon.

Medical students are providing child care to their hospital staff

When classes and rotations were canceled at the University of Minnesota, third-year medical student Londyn Robinson and her friends decided to mobilize their classmates — and those at other local universities — to provide free child care to the hospital staff. Since March 13 when they first sent around a Google form surveying workers’ needs, the organizers of “MN CovidSitters” have hand-matched more than 190 families to some 300 health and teaching students. It began as an ad hoc system, with 13 student administrators poring over spreadsheets to match three to four students per family, depending on their work hours and special needs. Robinson says safety is a priority, so they work with schools to ensure the students go through background checks and know how to take care of children who might need more attention.

As demand grows, they’re now looking for more volunteers. They’re also partnering with local companies in hopes of building an app that can streamline that process and make their service available to other cities.

“One of the biggest challenges is mentally grasping that need,” she says. “You're seeing people who have taught you every single day in clinics, or the nurse who taught you how to put in an IV, or the people who make food for you in the cafeteria now all of a sudden not have child care.”

A community-led algorithm is connecting users to nearby child care in France

There are a lot of people who won’t meet the definitions of “emergency workers” various governments have set, but still need child care to do their jobs. In France, a website that uses an algorithm to match volunteers to people who need help turned up a lot of interest in child care, which made up two-thirds of the 800 requests the site received within the first four days of launching. Paris-based economist Gregory Grellet and two friends — one a web developer — launched En Premiere Ligne (French for “in the line of fire”), which matches volunteers to people seeking help within their postal codes. They’re then connected via an email that details one party’s criteria and the other’s credentials. The two sides can choose to whether to accept or reject the match — similar to Tinder, says Grellet.

When the algorithm can’t find a volunteer in the same area as the family looking for child care, Grellet and his team manually find them an alternative, sometimes by tweaking the algorithm or looking through their database for volunteers who might be close enough to help. Currently, his team is helping a woman with three children in a small town of 800 residents, about 30 miles north of Paris.

Within four days of launching the site, they had gathered 40,000 volunteers out of 290,000 unique visitors to the site — meaning one in seven people who visited signed up to be volunteers — and more than 700 requests for help. “That’s a huge conversion rate, so there is something happening, people want to help,” he says.

Existing child care apps adapt to coronavirus

Elsewhere in Europe, child care startups are tweaking their products to target them toward the current need. The U.K. startup Koru Kids, which initially focused on finding after-school care for working parents, has expanded to help workers find all-day care by matching them with available nannies. In Barcelona, some companies that still require workers to go into the office — like pharmaceutical firms — are partnering with Nannyfy, a platform for nanny services, to find their employees child care help. Founder Claudia de la Riva told the site Sift that they’ve gone from getting 10 to 12 request a month to 16 to 18 per day.

Parents form informal child care co-ops

For many parents not served by government initiatives, their best option is to turn to their community. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers is letting child care centers stay open and restricting them to no more than 10 staff and 50 children inside a center at a time. But for Leah Hugo, a chemist for a biotech firm that’s trying to develop a coronavirus vaccine, that’s of little use for her six-year-old daughter. Available programs are too expensive, and they can’t accommodate the schedule for her job, which qualifies as essential work. “It’s not a normal schedule so no daycare center would want to take my kid,” she says. Her job starts at 6 a.m., and depending on what work she has that day, could end as late as 10 p.m.

Hugo had a babysitter, but she recently quit because she was immunocompromised. Before coronavirus hit, she had also been had been part of a co-op — a group of neighborhood parents who exchange care with one another. Since schools closed, most people have opted out of the co-op to avoid contagion. But Hugo and another member of the group, Emma Rose, have formed their own share, relying on each other more than ever.

On a typical day now, Rose looks after both their kids at Hugo’s home while Hugo is at work. When Rose needs a break to teach fitness classes online, Hugo’s spouse (or Hugo herself, if she’s home) will take over child-care duty.

Hugo says if she didn’t already have the relationship with Rose, her only option would be to make desperate pleas on Facebook. Even then, she doubts many would offer help, as her daughter is waiting for test results for Covid-19, which will take days. “None of this is working,” she says about her government’s handling of the crisis.

Filling the care gaps

Others who can afford it may still be able to use regular babysitters or nannies to fill gaps, but they may not be permitted by some shelter-in-place orders. As Urbansitter.com explains on its website, babysitters are permitted in the Bay Area in all seven counties, where it is considered an essential service. But in Colorado, “there are more restrictions and unless the caregiver is living with the family, providing medical care to the child or is providing care in order to allow parents/guardians to work for an Essential Business or perform an Essential Government function, it is not permitted.”

That illustrates the complexity of addressing the child care crisis, both during the pandemic and for what may be a long recovery. In the U.S., the cost of providing child care to low-income working families has long exceeded available federal subsidies, and many mom-and-pop programs operate on razor-thin margins. With some parents pulling their kids out because of Covid-19 concerns, many operators still standing are struggling to stay afloat, while others that are now closed may not reopen again. The new coronvirus stimulus package includes $3.5 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, but as Matthews at CLASP says, that’s a small bandage on an industry recently estimated to generate $99 billion in yearly economic impact.

In the U.S., there is some relief coming to families in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Workers at companies and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees, as well as government staff, are now entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for children when schools close and when they can’t find alternative care. Employers are required to pay them two-thirds of their wages, up to a maximum of $200 daily, and the legislation protects workers from losing their jobs for taking the leave.

Matthews says that’s a good start, but needs to go further: Some low-income families can’t afford to take the leave because getting paid two-thirds of their wages may not be enough to support their families. And the exemption for large companies and other loopholes could leave out millions of low-wage workers.

“This needs to be addressed holistically, so we’re addressing both the child care needs that are urgent and not going away, and also make sure that workers have access to paid leave so they don’t have to choose between caregiving and losing wages,”  says Matthews.

Meanwhile, parents, neighbors, emergency babysitters and professionals are doing what they can to fill the gaps. In the era of coronavirus, child care is about more than keeping kids fed, rested and mentally stimulated, says Campos, the educator in San Francisco. It’s also about being a source of calm and stability at an anxious time for little ones too.  

“Kids are developing and learning through our experiences and behaviors as adults, so if we approach them with fear, that is what they’re going to learn,” she says. She recounted how one young student recently asked one of Campos’ coworkers for a high-five. The educator might have instinctively responded with a no — after all, avoiding hand-to-hand contact is rule number one of social distancing. Instead she stooped down and reciprocated. “The last thing you want is for that kid to feel rejection,” Campos says. “So it’s high-five — and then let’s go wash our hands.”

With reporting from Yoshiaki Nohara in Tokyo.

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