Analysis: For Kids to Learn and Parents to Keep Their Jobs, We Need to Bring Child Care to the Remote-Learning Table

Despite educators’ hard work across the country, one thing is missing in many state and local school efforts to make remote learning a success. Specifically, the recognition that for many working parents, full-time remote learning makes it difficult or impossible for them to do their jobs. So they rely on afterschool and child care programs, home-based child care providers, and neighbors and relatives down the street to pitch in.

These caregivers are the adults who will be helping children with their remote learning each day. Yet too little is being done to engage and support them. Has grandma received enough training to operate Microsoft Teams or Zoom breakout rooms? Does the home-based child care provider have access to materials from the teacher, or to the high-speed internet needed for videoconferencing? Does the afterschool provider know how to reach teachers if there is a problem? Will the gulf between the haves and have-nots widen as these caregivers struggle without support to help children learn?

The success of remote schooling for many children of working parents depends on the answers to questions such as these. So does the ability of parents to work without risking their children’s education.

There are steps that policymakers and stakeholders can take to address these questions.

To begin with, schools and parent-serving organizations need to reach out to working parents, afterschool and child care providers, employers, health experts and others to identify how to best meet the needs of children involved in remote learning whose parents must work. As part of this, schools and family engagement workers need to ask working parents who will be overseeing their child(ren)’s distance learning and how the school can support their efforts.

Schools can actively support these caregivers. For instance, in Maryland, Washington County Public Schools held a full-day session with child care and afterschool providers to demonstrate remote learning. Virginia’s Departments of Education and Social Services jointly developed a comprehensive approach that includes many key elements, among them steps to support access to the internet, necessary technology, learning materials and appropriate school personnel for those caregivers and afterschool providers who are supervising children’s remote learning.

Working parents with low incomes also need access to good child care and afterschool options and, in many cases, help paying for it. To this end, the federal and state governments should expand funding for child care subsidies and afterschool programs, as well as provide resources to directly stabilize the supply of child care settings struggling due to the pandemic. The SOLVE model put in place by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, which helps pay for care and supervision for children engaged in distance learning, provides one example of a step that states could take to make care more affordable for families.

All these efforts — outreach, training, funding and other supports — need to be available to the full range of caregivers that parents use, whether formal afterschool programs, child care centers, family child care homes or family, friends and neighbors. It is essential to include home-based settings, which have always played a significant role in caring for school-age children whose parents work but are becoming more popular during the pandemic. This is because of affordability, flexibility and concerns about health risks of larger groups of children, as well as a decreased supply of center-based child care options since COVID-19 struck. Yet public resources are often less available to home-based child care settings, suggesting that states need to review their funding efforts to improve supports for these essential caregivers.

Communities where families face the most significant barriers and inequities in access to health care, academic success and financial security should take priority in any of these efforts. Many of these risks disproportionately challenge Black, Latino and Indigenous communities that face systemic barriers and racism in access to decent health care, education and employment opportunities, which contribute to their higher risk of COVID-19. Given these realities and the historic inequities in school funding, it is not surprising that emerging research suggests that Black and Latino parents may be even more concerned than white parents about the health risks of in-person schooling and distrusting of the ability of schools to keep their children safe, making the quality of remote learning support even more important.

The reality is that families with lower incomes, higher health risks and kids with greater school challenges will find it hardest to balance their need to earn a living, keep their family safe and healthy, and support their children’s learning. The risks and trade-offs they face have more dire consequences in every direction. This makes it especially worrisome that the children who already face the most significant barriers are at the greatest risk of not getting the support they need in remote learning.

Failure to act will set us up for a mixed and inequitable remote learning experience similar to what many students experienced in the spring, and it will deepen the damage to children’s academic success. But now, the lack of planning and coordination between schools and child caregivers will contribute to the problem. Taking the steps outlined above to invest in supporting parents and the full range of caregivers could ease some of the burdens on families who face the most significant risks and barriers and reduce the potential academic losses for children who are already facing challenges. Children would learn more this school year, and parents would be able to go to work more confident that they are not jeopardizing their children’s educational success. We could make the road to economic recovery a little less rocky for these parents, their children and our nation.

Gina Adams is a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute and directs the Low-Income Working Families project and the Kids in Context initiative. 

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