Parents in Western Washington – and in many parts of the country – are facing a school year like no other. Most districts here will begin with no in-person instruction, and for parents or guardians who work outside the home, that means a scramble to find some kind of child care.
And many will have to dig into their pockets to pay for care during the seven hours or so when children normally attend school.
That’s the situation for Tabitha Siira. The Seattle mother of a third-grader and a second-grader works at Boeing and will have to return to the office in a few weeks. Her husband is a plumber, so he works outside the home as well. Siira said she’s signed up on a couple of waitlists for child care and also asked the organization that runs the after-care program that her kids normally attend.
“I have yet to hear back even if they have a plan, and school is supposed to be starting in a little less than a month,” she said.
In recent days, Siira said she may have found a solution. Her gym is coordinating a pod of children who can learn together, and she likely will hire a part-time nanny to take care of them beyond that. Siira said this arrangement is likely to cost double what she normally spends on after-school care, and it’s an expense her family had not budgeted.
But beyond the extra cost, Siira said what she finds frustrating is that remote schooling presumes there’s an adult there who can manage the children getting on their Zoom calls and doing their homework.
“I’m pretty much being told that I have to quit my job so I can teach my kid when I pay taxes for the state to do it for me,” she said.
All of this raises thorny questions about what school is. Is it essentially state-funded child care? Or is it a system of instruction that doesn’t need to be done in person, as families are now being told?
School district leaders acknowledge that switching to remote learning has exacerbated what was already a fragile child care system. In a panel discussion hosted by the League of Education Voters, Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker acknowledged the stress that families are facing right now as they try to line up care for their kids during school hours, especially as the district moves to offer live online instruction at set times of the day.
“The child care aspect is just daunting, and the emotions and pain of families trying to figure out what this means is immense,” Baker said.
In Seattle, the adults who will help hundreds, and possibly thousands, of children get on their online classes and manage remote learning likely will be child care workers employed by places such as Boys and Girls Clubs of King County, the YMCA or Launch.
Those groups are part of a coalition of child care programs that have asked Seattle Public Schools for more classroom space and janitorial services so they can offer more care for kids during school hours. Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for the school district, said Seattle Public Schools has agreed to provide space in as many as 68 buildings and will provide cleaning services for shared spaces, but that child care organizations will have to clean their own dedicated spaces.
The coalition also has asked the district to provide assistance from paraeducators to help children do their remote learning. Robinson said that’s still a matter subject to bargaining with the Seattle Education Association.
Angela Griffin, executive director of the child care program Launch, said that during distance learning in the spring, her staff helped students do their homework packets and now they’re preparing to help kids get on their online classes.
“We’re trying to make sure we can provide support similar to what a parent would be expected to provide during that time,” she said.
But all of this is going to be expensive. The health and cleaning protocols add to the cost. And then if someone tests positive for the virus, the site has to shut down for 14 days. Griffin said Launch has only had one case of someone testing positive. But that closure does come with a financial cost.
“We’ve committed to continuing to pay our employees when that happens,” she said. “We’ve committed to families who have paid to hold their tuition in balance until they’re able to come. So that’s when we’re looking at our financial models trying to figure out what can we really afford?”
Working parents also are examining their own budgets to figure out what they can afford. The state provides child care subsidies for low-income families, but a lot of families are just above that threshold.
Debra Johnson, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families, said the need for child care far outstrips supply right now.
She said there are about 1.2 million children in Washington between birth and 12 years old, and more than 60 percent of them live in households where all adults work. That means more than 700,000 children would potentially need care. But DCYF licenses about 187,000 child care slots, and one-quarter of them are closed right now due to the pandemic.
“The reality is that there are going to be a whole lot of kids needing care, and it won’t be possible to make the system five times larger in the next month,” Johnson said in an email.
Griffin said child care organizations are looking to philanthropies or businesses to provide assistance. Sen. Patty Murray is pushing to get billions of dollars from the federal government for child care. Groups such as Launch and Boys and Girls Clubs do offer scholarships, but that likely will not stretch far enough to meet the need.
What that means is that some families who can't afford child care or can't find slots may leave their children at home alone during the day, and they will have to do their best to manage their own remote learning. Older siblings often have to babysit their younger siblings. Deeann Puffert, chief executive of the child care resource and referral organization Child Care Aware of Washington, said some families may even make the tough decision to leave younger children home alone during the school day.
“I do worry that there could be — due to untenable decisions — a choice could be made hoping that your 10-year-old is ready to watch the 6-year-old all day,” she said.
Puffert said she’s also worried that parents could be blamed for doing that when they’re in a tough spot and don’t have much of a choice.
This also raises basic questions of fairness and access to education. School this fall will follow more traditional school practices, such as giving grades and taking attendance — things that were essentially put on hold during distance learning in the spring. So a 10-year-old home alone and struggling to get online for classes could be penalized academically.
As many families opt to send their kids to child care programs during school hours, thorny questions arise. Why are child care programs allowed to remain open if it’s not safe for schools to offer in-person instruction? And how do child care providers feel about working on the front line taking care of children in person when teachers will be teaching remotely?
In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said that child care is an essential service and that the need for it has only increased as the state reopens in phases. And the health department said its detailed protocols around physical distancing, symptom monitoring and hand washing reduce risk.
A spokesperson for Public Health Seattle & King County said that there have been 20 outbreaks involving 15 child care facilities from March 22 through July. Those involved a total of 11 children and 44 employees. Earlier this month, he said the agency had three newly reported cases that they were preparing to investigate.
Puffert said it’s a contentious issue among child care workers that they continue to provide in-person care while schools will not open for in-person instruction. Child care workers earn substantially less than public school teachers.
“Many child care providers take a lot of pride in being essential workers and that this is part of their community contribution, that they take these sorts of risks,” Puffert said. “And other people are saying, 'Well, this doesn’t feel so fair.’”