Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Impossible Choices for Parents as Businesses Reopen

Pick one: your child, your health or your job.

It’s a cruel and impossible choice. Parental love compels us to protect our children, even at our own expense. But how do we provide for our children without an income? Who takes care of our children if we get seriously ill or die?

This is the wretched calculus some families are grappling with during this pandemic. Parents with young children who must return to work as states reopen are dealing with difficult questions: Is it safe to send my child to day care, where children will inevitably be in close contact with one another? Should I risk exposing an elderly parent to the potentially fatal coronavirus by relying on them for child care? Can I trust an older child to watch younger siblings all day? Should I reach out to high-schoolers and college students for babysitting, even if they may not be following social distancing protocols?

And the most desperate situation: What should I do if there isn’t any child care available that I can afford?

About 45% of licensed day care providers closed their doors during the state stay-at-home orders in Missouri, according to Child Care Aware of Missouri. It’s unknown how many of those providers will reopen as workers are asked to return to their jobs.

“The only way the economy is going to recover is if there is enough child care for children to be left in safe places,” said Robin Phillips, CEO of Child Care Aware of Missouri. “If this child care situation does not improve, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”

Seven weeks into this crisis, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson addressed the issue last week. Funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will be used to expand the number of families who qualify for child care subsidies, offer child care support for low-income parents looking for work and disburse grant money to centers that remained open during the shelter-in-place orders. However, there are still significant gaps in the plan: The fate of centers that had to close during this time still needs to be addressed. They will need financial support to reopen.

And while families are struggling with questions about their basic survival, the Republicans in Missouri’s state legislature spent their time last week debating whether to prohibit state and local law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws. Talk about a complete disconnect from reality.

Perhaps it’s a big ask for those dedicated to the needs of their donors, but, legislators: Consider focusing on the welfare of the children in your state.

Social services departments need to communicate directly and clearly with child care providers who need guidance about how to reopen with new health and safety practices. Incorporating the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local rules, means adding to the costs for child care programs. Providers will need protective equipment for staff, additional cleaning and sanitation supplies and increased staffing to accommodate the smaller class sizes.

Day care centers already operate on thin margins, employ low-paid workers and rely heavily on tuition, which will take a hit as parents who have lost jobs keep their children at home. These added expenses will go beyond June, when the additional financial support for care programs is scheduled to expire.

Craig Stevenson, director of policy and advocacy with Kids Win Missouri, a child well-being organization, said there is still much more to do if we want our families to get back to work. In the coming months, parents who were counting on summer camps or summer school may no longer have those options as many camps cancel or move online.

“There’s not a lot of clear answers, and that’s a big problem for parents,” he said.

Given that an available workforce is critical to restarting our devastated economy, that’s a big problem for everyone.