The future of childcare: How the pandemic is highlighting a need for 'affordable, accessible' options

From temperature checks to shifts in teacher-child ratios, the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in new protocols for childcare providers. (Getty Images stock photo)
From temperature checks to shifts in teacher-child ratios, the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in new protocols for childcare providers. (Getty Images stock photo)

One of the biggest disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic was a lack of adequate childcare, with schools closing, daycare centers being shut down or available only to the children of essential workers and parents working to keep their little ones safe and free from those outside the family unit, including babysitters. While some have managed to juggle their work with home-schooling and diaper-changing, others turned to family members for assistance or hired sitters and nannies who could commit to social distancing and safe practices outside the home.

Now, as states reopen and daycares resume business — albeit with strict new regulations regarding temperature checks, quarantine protocol for sick staffers and disinfection of shared spaces — many families are now easing back into the childcare arrangements they had pre-COVID-19. But with spikes being reported — particularly in Southern states like Texas, which has rolled back its required safety precautions — and the specter of a potential resurgence during the fall looming, it’s not quite business as usual.

To get a sense of how childcare is changing in response to the pandemic, Yahoo Life spoke with Jo Kirchner, CEO of Primrose Schools, a national chain of centers specializing in early education and childcare for infants up to kindergarten, as well as after-school programs. According to Kirchner, a recent Primrose survey of around 2,000 families enrolled in their schools cited health and safety as being their top concern as their kids headed back to class. That concern is “natural,” she says, “given the pandemic and the uncertainty and [how there’s] so much that we don't know right now ...

“What does it need to look like to ensure that your children are safe?” adds Kirchner.

For the time being, it looks like heeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advice and implementing precautions such as temperature checks for children and staffers, a drop-off and pick-up procedure that takes place outside facilities and adjusting teacher-student ratios to form mini bubbles of sorts within the classroom — changes Kirchner expects to be enforced until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.

“Until there's a vaccine we don't foresee any of that going away,” she says.

And if such a vaccine becomes available, it’s possible that licensed childcare centers would require every enrolled child to have it alongside their standard mandatory immunizations. This would be subject to state regulations and what medical, religious or philosophical exemptions, if any, are allowed there. According to Kirchner, licensed facilities like Primrose are “monitoring” how the vaccination process unfolds, as well as parent expectations.

It's possible that, in the future, COVID-19 vaccinations will be required for children in daycare. (Getty Images)
It's possible that, in the future, COVID-19 vaccinations will be required for children in daycare. (Getty Images)

“If that is a high parent concern, then it would probably be a requirement that we would make ... a child having that vaccine before entering,” she says.

Masks are another area of concern. Officially, CDC guidance — which is not mandatory, unless explicitly adopted by state regulations — recommends that “when feasible, staff members and older children should wear face coverings within the facility.” Cloth face masks aren’t advised for children age 2 and under due to the risk of suffocation. While childcare workers are expected to wear masks on-site, when it comes to the kids themselves, mask-wearing generally appears to be encouraged, but not actually required. Primrose has issued no mandate requiring masks for its charges, though Kirchner says some parents have requested that their children wear cloth coverings as a precaution.

And while on-site COVID-19 testing for staff and children would help plenty of parents to rest easy, there’s no infrastructure nor state regulation to make adopting that process possible, Kirchner says. It’s also uncertain if precautions will be ramped up ahead of flu season, which many experts have warned could intensify a potential second wave of COVID-19. While Kirchner says that the heightened hygiene and cleanliness precautions currently in place should help prevent common colds and the flu from spreading, she acknowledges that there may be extra pressure for childcare centers to insist upon flu shots. Flu shots are not state-mandated, though some providers do require them. Kirchner says she hasn’t heard much industry buzz about anything changing on that front, though flu-shot protocol, or lack thereof, could indeed be a deal-breaker for families as the fall approaches.

“Given the environment we're in, I do think that there will become a higher awareness of it,” she says. “Unless the state mandates it, it would be a parent choice, and we'd follow our parents’ thoughts very closely to make sure the environment was as healthy and health-conscious as possible.” 

While anxieties about health and safety are top of mind for parents who are dependent on childcare as their own workplaces reopen, the pandemic has also brought other issues to the forefront. Will those parents who will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future look to scale back their children’s daycare schedule — say, from five days a week to just three? Will childcare providers implement new tuition contingency policies in the event of a second wave, or future pandemic? Can parents afford to pay for childcare services they aren’t using, should another worst-case scenario situation occur? Can providers — many of whom aren’t expected to survive the closures brought on by the pandemic — keep afloat by offering families more flexibility? And will these closures create more childcare deserts that disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods and communities of color?

Kirchner says that by and large, childcare providers are “going to be very flexible and creative when it comes to solutions.” During the pandemic, for instance, many Primrose classes pivoted to online learning, with teachers reading stories or conducting circle time over Zoom. Tuition payments were also paused for families unable to use on-site services, while many franchise owners offered discounted rates to those with kids still coming in. But neither practice is sustainable, she warns.

“Long term, that can't be the way that we do business,” she says of the shift to online classes. “In the future, we won't be as productive to do it that way, but we're all trying to be as flexible as possible right now because it is what it is and we have to get through this.”

Pausing tuition is also “not stable” for an industry that has already taken a huge financial hit and will see attendance shrink compared to its pre-pandemic days. Childcare centers offer socialization and early education curriculum that is key to child development, Kirchner notes, but the industry is facing an uncertain future.

“Providers can't keep facilities open and operate with such low occupancy, and then if they were to have to drop tuition, they would go out of business,” she says. “In fact, there's grave concern right now [over] what's going to happen to childcare infrastructure in the future. ... Many of them worked hard to survive these couple of months, but many childcare center providers are small businesses that won't have the bandwidth for the additional expenses of lower group sizes and all the policies and procedures and regulations and cleaning and additional supplies it took. Smaller group sizes may mean the occupancy of the facility may be cut in half in some states, so without government assistance, it will be very difficult for most childcare centers to survive.”

Meanwhile, some families are shifting from group childcare to one-on-one caregivers in an effort to keep exposure small while still getting care. Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com, an online search hub for caregivers ranging from babysitters and nannies to housekeepers and pet sitters, says that the site initially saw a decline in business as stay-at-home orders took effect; users weren’t going out, and wanted to limit access to their homes. But, as states reopen and work demands shift, Allen tells Yahoo Life that there’s been a “real resumption” in demand for in-home caregivers who can be vetted, trusted to abide by a household’s social distancing rules and hired on a flexible basis that works with a family’s individual needs.

Hiring one go-to caregiver gives parents control over the childcare environment — typically, their own home — and set the terms for what he calls the “exposure circle.” In response to the pandemic, Care.com has provided online resource guides on establishing rules with a caregiver on expectations for precautions ranging from temperature checks and hand-washing to mask-wearing and social distancing off the clock. The search hub also features a new fever filter in which providers can indicate if they have a high temperature, and thus be filtered out of searches until they present no symptoms; while Allen admits that a fever is far from a definitive COVID-19 indicator, it “gives a level of comfort.” The overall goal, he adds, is for parents to reach a clear-cut agreement with the person watching their children, for the health of all concerned.

Some families are nanny sharing with another household as a way to cut childcare costs. (Getty Images stock)
Some families are nanny sharing with another household as a way to cut childcare costs. (Getty Images stock)

“I encourage all parents to do their own small version of contact tracing with the care provider,” he says. “You can have a frank and open dialogue with that care provider to say, have you been exposed to anyone? Have you been around anyone? What has your environment been like in the last 72 hours? You can ask those direct questions, which you don't have access to in your childcare.”

In addition to a rise in “affordable, individual help,” Allen has noticed a trend in nanny sharing, in which family members, neighbors and other trusted exposure circles use the same caregiver. Assuming there’s a high level of trust and everyone agrees to follow the same precautions, splitting a nanny with another household can offset childcare costs and provide socialization in the absence of school, daycare and other social groups.

Allen — who notes that his site has recently attracted a “large pool” of highly in-demand teachers and childcare professionals looking for work in the wake of school closures and furloughs — predicts that “out-of-the-box” childcare solutions will continue long after the pandemic is over, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, 63 percent of the 3,848 respondents surveyed for Care.com’s just-released COVID-19 Child Care Survey expressed being somewhat or very uncomfortable returning their kids to daycare as states reopen; 35 percent of those parents also said they were considering in-home care as an alternative.

“I do think you will have remnants of the COVID crisis occur where group childcare is not going to be as desirable as it was previously, and I think people will want to control their environment,” he says. “Plus, you now have a disruptive workforce where people are working from home now and potentially are working from home for a longer period of time, or have flexibility to work from home. And that will also disrupt the childcare ecosystem because you no longer need a 9-to-5, five-day-a-week center. You need a nanny who you trust and who's reliable and who's affordable who can come in Tuesdays, Thursdays and part of Friday, and that dynamic I think is going to continue on past COVID and a vaccine.”

Whether in a daycare or with a nanny, however, Allen says the coronavirus pandemic has made one thing abundantly clear: “Affordable, accessible childcare” is a “fundamental need” that needs more support.

“COVID has thrust [the issue] further into the spotlight,” he says. “I don't think employers or employees can keep their heads in the sand. You have to have functioning childcare in order to have a functioning economy.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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