Back to School: Parents of School-Age Children Scramble to Afford Child Care

The North Carolina State Legislature is expected to be in session for two days this week to deal with COVID-19 related issues. No doubt there are many important issues our state legislators will consider. One of the most important issues is related to North Carolina’s pathway to economic recovery.

For working parents, this fall’s school schedule is a parent’s nightmare. About 64 public school districts (representing 987,000 students) are starting the year with fully remote instruction. About 51 school districts started the year on a hybrid schedule – some onsite days and some remote learning days. For parents who must report to work or for parents who need to return to the workforce, this type of schedule for their children makes returning to work an enormous challenge. And, any parent who has spent the past six months working remotely can testify to the challenges of both trying to work and also trying to support their child or children’s remote learning.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released state unemployment data on Thursday. For North Carolina, unemployment was up from 7.5 percent in June to 8.5 percent in July.[1] While that’s down from 12.9 percent in April, it’s nearly 2.5 times as high as the unemployment rate for February (3.6 percent).[2] Clearly, state legislators need to consider how to support the ability of parents to return to work.

But, with COVID-19, it’s complicated. Elementary school children often need adult help with remote learning, particularly children in kindergarten through third or fourth grade who are highly dependent on a parent or adult body in the home to support their public school teacher’s remote classes and instructions.  However, for parents who must work and those who are seeking to return to work, child care for young children and remote learning centers for others is essential.

The Child Care Commission approved emergency rules in August to allow public schools to contract with entities such as the YMCA or YWCA, Parks and Recreation Departments, Boys & Girls Clubs and other nonprofits to serve as remote learning facilities. We understand the state legislature may consider legislation to circumvent current law and emergency rules designed to promote the health and safety of children (as well as their families and the individuals who work in these programs and their families).

During a public health pandemic, it makes no sense to gut child care licensing rules. Health and safety rules have always been important, but they are even more important now that the country and every one of us in our state faces an invisible enemy – a virus which can be passed on by those with symptoms and those without. That’s what makes following the regular health and safety rules for licensed child care and the specific COVID related health and safety precautions extra important at this time. 

To help public schools and community-based organizations with contracting for child care pursuant to the Child Care Commission’s emergency rules, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has publicly posted sample contracts, FAQs, and guidance for sanitation standards. A child care hotline (1-888-600-1685) is operating statewide to help families find child care.

Through August 31, there are 167,313 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 923 NC residents are hospitalized, and there have been 2,702 deaths.[3] Stopping the community spread of COVID-19 is a top goal within every community. Gutting child care licensing requirements, including health and safety rules, can only undermine that goal.

Parents need support to go back to work. And, North Carolina’s economic recovery will depend on the ability of parents to work. Instead of deregulating child care and weakening public health and safety precautions, if the legislature really wants to help working parents – they could consider expanding the availability of child care assistance for families with elementary school-age children. That’s a weakness. NC has a bifurcated system where families with children under age six receive child care assistance if their income is below 200 percent of poverty. But, families with school-age children (age 6 through age 12) are only eligible for child care assistance if they have income below 133 percent of poverty.[4] That’s the issue that needs to be fixed.

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau Weekly Household Pulse Survey (July 16-21, 2020), found that 53.4 percent of NC households with children under 18 have experienced a decline in income since March 13 compared to 41.7 percent of households without children.[5] If NC legislators want to really help families, then they should consider expanding access to child care assistance for families with school-age children. The bifurcated policy doesn’t make sense now during a public health pandemic as families are struggling to afford child care.

The priority for this two-day session should be helping families with children – not weakening public health and safety protections. Let’s not undermine public health and our ability to build a road to economic recovery.  A simple message for our state legislators: Just Say No.

[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina Unemployment Rates, February – July, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] NCDHHS, COVID-19 response.

[4] NC Division of Child Development and Early Education, Child Care Subsidy Eligibility,

[5] U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, Week 12, July 16-21, 2020.