The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on how critical child care is for working parents and simultaneously caused major shifts in the child care industry. Through interviews with 25 Massachusetts families who had children under the age of 5, Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., studied how families accessed child care during the pandemic, the experiences and perceptions of early child care among parents, and the implications for parents’ daily lives. In this interview, she discussed findings from the study:

Child Care Was Broken Before the Pandemic

We had a child care system that was broken before the pandemic started. The pandemic brought out how broken it is to the forefront so people started talking about it, and people started paying attention to it. Families that have been using child care all along knew how broken it was, but society as a whole did not really understand how much parents were paying for child care, how expensive it is, and, with the pandemic, how broken the whole system was.

Parent Mental Health During the Pandemic

So many families stayed home, and have been staying home for such a long time. ​​Moms and dads were telling me, "Chaos," "The worst time ever in my entire life," "Nightmare." When they think back to the beginning of the pandemic, they were like, oh my gosh, how did I survive it?

Going Back to Child Care

I had done a study in the summer of 2020, where families were really leery about sending their kids back to child care, just because of the unknowns. They were really frightened about COVID and they didn't want their kids to get it. So they stayed home.

So I was surprised to hear, for this group of families that I interviewed, almost all of them sent their kids back to child care as soon as they could. They were eager to send their kids back because they felt that for their own mental health, the kids' mental health, they needed to go back to child care.

Now, the kids are back in child care. It may be for shorter periods of time and may not be as many hours as before. Maybe it's not as many days as before, but they are going back to child care and you know, they're still facing the same incredible problems with the cost of child care being way too expensive for most families.

Changing Child Care Arrangements and Affordability

A couple of families decided for health and safety reasons, they went from a center to a family child care home, thinking a smaller setting might be safer or more healthy than a larger setting. I had a couple of families that could not use child care centers anymore because they couldn't afford it. They had to reduce their own hours at work so they weren't getting paid as much, and they couldn't afford child care—in terms of a center. So they used friends or family instead.

One good thing about the pandemic is that people that were on subsidies did not have any kind of copay since March of 2020. Now that may change this fall. And the other problem is not everyone who needs a subsidy gets it. The waitlist is way too long and it's not being taken care of because there are not enough seats. There's not enough money to afford everyone a subsidy that needs it. So, families that were on subsidies told me, "I don't know what I'm going to do in the fall, or when we have to start paying our co-payments again."

Impacts of Pandemic-Related Relief Funding and the Child Tax Credit

One of the reasons why the system is broken is that teachers do not get paid enough. They don't get paid a living wage, and they often have to work two or three jobs in order to even pay for their own rents and mortgages. So some of the relief funding will be going to keep teachers in classrooms, which is important because right now there aren't enough teachers to fill classrooms.

For families, I think that if we can extend the Child Tax Credit beyond 2021, that will help families pay for the child care. It's not going to pay for all child care, but it's going to help. And then I think we need to redo the subsidy system so that families that need more than just the tax credit can get the care they need so that they themselves can work.

The Road Forward

I fear that because kids are back, either in child care or school, sooner or later, parents will be expected to go back to the way things were before. And it can't go back because we can't sustain the system of child care we have now. We can't go back to the way it was. It's got to be built better. We have to start up from the ground up and build a better system.

Lessons for Employers

Employers need to really think about what their expectations are for their employees because employees are burning out. The moms and dads I spoke to were all used up. They had nothing left to give after spending so much time juggling remote work or essential work and caring for their kids. So I think employers might need to implement things like flex time, paid parental leave—because even though Massachusetts has, not everyone does have that—and just lower expectations. Don't make your employees stay up to two or three in the morning to get their work done, because they're going to burn out.

Parents want to be good employees, and they also want to be good parents, too. And to be good parents, they need to take care of themselves. If they need help with their mental health or anything that's troubling them, they need to get that help. Because they can't help their children or do the best for their children until they themselves are well.

November 2, 2021

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