Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Paying for Day Care You Can’t Use

At this moment of crisis, one of the toughest decisions facing parents with young children is how long they can keep paying for day care they can no longer use. The current situation has revealed all the cracks in our country’s child care system.

Laura Boling, a single, working mother in Ballwin, Missouri, has been paying full tuition to her day care provider, despite keeping her son home since mid-March. Her mother lives with them, and Boling was worried about potentially exposing her to the coronavirus if she continued sending her 3-year-old son. Both she and her mom are working from home.

Her son has been going to the same in-home provider since he was 3 months old.

“I want to stay with (the provider) because we really love her,” Boling said. But she says if she is still unable to send her son by mid-May, she will stop paying and unenroll him. “I understand she is in a hard situation, but I can only do so much.”

Day care providers have to continue paying their fixed costs during the lockdown crisis, despite plunging attendance. While many contracts mandate that parents continue to pay tuition to retain a spot, it has become financially impossible for those who have lost their jobs. Other parents have had to continue to pay for day care even though the facilities have closed down.

Day care payments often rival a mortgage, and are one of the most significant parts of a family’s budget. Parents are weighing emotional and moral factors in their decisions.

Dawn Spell, a nurse practitioner in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri, still has to go to the urgent care facility where she works while her young children are at home. She has been adjusting her hours and taking some unpaid days off, and her husband also takes one day a week off from his job to help care for their children. They paid about 60% of their day care bill for April -- $600 -- in addition to paying a sitter who comes to their home.

“I’m feeling extremely stressed,” Spell said. They will have to stop paying for the unused day care going forward, she said. “I feel bad, and worry about (the provider) not being able to pay the full-time staff.”

Day care costs more than in-state college tuition in more than half the country. Parents pay an average of $9,600 annually for care for one young child, according to a report by Child Care Aware of America. In some states, the cost far exceeds that average, and families with more than one child are paying multiples of that amount.

For health care workers with kids, that financial pressure is coupled with their current hazardous work conditions.

Dr. Betsy Odom, an emergency medicine resident at Barnes Jewish Hospital, has two daughters, ages 4 years and 6 months. Her husband is a hospitalist, so they are both essential workers exposed to COVID-19 patients.

Their child care costs have skyrocketed to $800 a week because they are paying half of their day care tuition to hold their spots, in addition to paying for a sitter to be on call given their irregular hours, and paying extra wages for a sitter who comes to their home because of the heightened risk she faces.

Odom, who is still breastfeeding her baby, said she is trying to pump at work, but it has become increasingly difficult to go through the many layers of decontamination before and after each pumping session.

“I’m consumed by the worry” of getting sick or exposing her children to the virus, she said. Her preschooler is also scared. One of her friends at school told her, “Your mommy and daddy work at the hospital, so they will get coronavirus and die.”

Odom said they reassured her daughter that they are taking lots of precautions to stay healthy.

The ethical quagmire facing working parents has exposed the dire need for subsidized child care in this country. Providers operate on thin margins, workers make an average of $10 an hour and the entire financial burden is shouldered by parents. For a wealthy country that claims to value its children, we have the worst policies for families: no paid family leave, no paid sick leave and no universal child care.

Our government can bail out banks, but not the people who take care of babies. Instead, we tell financially stressed parents to figure it out.