Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Working Parents Need a Child Care Bailout

More than 23 million parents are backed into a corner right now.

That’s how many parents the Brookings Institution estimates rely on school and child care programs while they go to work to be able to provide for their families. Their ability to work is essential to our country’s economic recovery.

But while our government will scramble to bail out airlines and banks and car manufacturers, you don’t hear the same kind of urgency around a child care bailout during this pandemic. No one has a good answer for what working parents required to return to their offices are supposed to do if it’s not safe for schools to reopen in person. There are children too young to stay at home alone whose parents may not have access to or cannot afford child care.

And in places where the coronavirus is surging, the answer is not to simply reopen schools -- putting teachers, staff and parents at risk.

The St. Louis Public Schools are considering learning centers where children would be supervised while receiving online lessons. But for parents like Mia Daugherty, a single mom in St. Louis, the fear of exposure to the virus means she will be keeping her 5-year-old daughter, Zara, at home for kindergarten.

“She’s not going to school until COVID numbers look a lot better than how they look now,” Daugherty said. “It doesn’t make sense to put my child’s life at risk, and the teachers, administrators and staff at risk. A lot of kids are asymptomatic, and I’m not willing to gamble on anyone’s life.”

Daugherty, who is Black, knows the health risks from COVID-19 are far greater for her community. She’s not sure how she will manage home-schooling her daughter while working full-time from home.

Zara had been doing exceptionally well before preschool ended in March and had been accepted into a gifted magnet school for the fall.

“It was much more difficult for (Zara) to focus on the last two months of work. I know her skills and progress are not where they could have been,” Daugherty said. She knows that virtual learning, especially for kindergartners, who learn best through play, is not the same as being in a classroom with peers and teachers. Zara was reading and writing on a first-grade level in pre-K, and now her mom is seeing a little bit of a decline in those skills.

“My plate is already so full,” she said. “I’m juggling multiple things, so I’m already stretching myself so thin. I take breaks to give her meals, but I haven’t had time to spend with her. This is what I have to do to survive, and in order for us to be able to live.”

She knows there are parents in even more dire circumstances -- those who don’t have a job and are facing eviction and financial ruin and those with children with disabilities who need special services. That’s not to mention the millions of children who rely on schools for meals and refuge from unsafe homes.

For now, Daugherty can’t even think about how she will balance the educational, social and emotional needs of her young daughter with a full-time job that demands her attention all day.

“I honestly can’t even cross that bridge of how I will home-school her ... It might send me into a panic attack,” she said.

Where is the sense of urgency for Zara and kids like her?

Where is the help for working parents who are critical to our economy?

For a country that has sidelined the needs of families for so long, this crisis has turned the cracks in our society into craters.

Politicians have ignored the desperation of 23 million parents at their own peril.

Now, it’s time for a reckoning.