There is at least one shining light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel: childcare. Schools and daycares are largely reopening, bringing much needed relief to many working parents. Like never before, a spotlight has been shone on the lack of available childcare and the need to approach it from a more comprehensive perspective. In the past, childcare has often been thought of as an individual’s problem. Each family must figure out their own needs and solutions, and to some extent, this is true. But now, employers, governments, and communities are realizing that the effects of the childcare drought reach far beyond the individual. While this issue may start at home, it influences our nation’s workforce in ways that have momentous impacts on the economy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as early as July, the number of manufacturing jobs had risen to pre-pandemic levels. However, many of these jobs remain open as workers are unable to fill their former positions nor apply for new ones because they have no one to watch their children who are home all or most days for virtual school. In order to encourage workers to return to work, the Wall Street Journal reported that “manufacturers are shifting worker schedules, adding on-site daycare and helping employees find other child-care arrangements as they work to increase output.” While childcare may have been a glaring issue for many people before the pandemic, more and more working parents are struggling to meet their childcare needs because of the added pressures of virtual schooling.
Employers are left with few options. They are forced to either provide some kind of childcare amenities or face the challenges of a dwindling, non-productive workforce. Even parents working from home are struggling to ensure their children still receive an education. In order to be productive at home while working, many families are seeking to place their child in learning hubs or pods, which allow school-aged children to be dropped off and taught by private educators or parents. Pods with private educators can start at around $30 an hour and go up to $100 per hour, which translates to $1,050 to $3,500 per week, or $4,200 to $14,000 a month. Considering most parents are paying nothing for public schooling, these costs exceed rates beyond what the average American can afford.
Some companies may choose to subsidize childcare rather than attempt to provide it themselves in order to avoid the logistical challenges that accompany it. Looking at models of successful childcare providers can help companies determine what is manageable and what needs to be outsourced. Tootris (stylized as TOOTRiS) is a childcare technology startup based out of San Diego that supplies on demand childcare through a real time platform that allows families to filter through their 30,000 providers to find what they need. They also work with businesses to provide childcare as a benefit to employees.
I spoke with one of Tootris’ providers, Teresa Fuentes, who runs a learning hub based out of her home, and the conversation was translated by Marlene Fuentes, the Director of In-Home Care for Tootris who also happens to be Teresa’s daughter. “One thing that she has experienced is that she has had parents call her, particularly parents of school age children, for support, an opening to see if she has space, and unfortunately, she doesn’t have a place. And so parents have been calling, saying that there’s an overwhelming stress because they can’t find a provider,” said Fuentes. This is in part because more parents need childcare than ever before but also in part because the providers she knows are hesitant to take on the additional challenge of school-aged children.
For employers or properties looking to implement childcare as an amenity, there’s a lot to consider in terms of logistics. For starters, is there enough space to provide each child with a private area where they can learn without being at risk of contracting the coronavirus from other classmates? These spaces would require limited distraction and enough outlets to support the devices children are using to learn.
One Texas-based co-working company, WorkSuites, has launched what they call a Zoom Room as a virtual learning space for children. The space provides individual desks, tablets, WiFi, and networked printers for the children to use, as well as a monitor to make sure they stay on track. Children, like adults, are expected to wear masks in these spaces, but the question remains if this kind of setup is safe enough to sustain productivity over a long period of time.
Another reason that childcare providers are hesitant to take on school-aged children, explained Fuentes, is that they don’t have the resources or support to provide all of the technology needed to facilitate virtual learning. Whether it’s the bandwidth, understanding the platforms, being able to help kids troubleshoot technology issues, the average provider isn’t necessarily equipped to handle these extra duties. “She knows that within her network, some providers aren’t really necessarily accepting school age children due to their discomfort—their inability to feel comfortable with being able to support children’s learning, virtually. And particularly with technology,” explained Fuentes.
Similarly, another challenge that arises is that each child is learning a different curriculum based on a different schedule that their district or school provides. Right now, Fuentes manages six school-aged children in addition to seven pre-K kids. She provides their technological support, meals, snacks, and has enhanced safety protocols that include each child leaving fresh clothes and shoes at the hub that they wear while there. The children must receive temperature checks and wash hands upon entering as well.
One of the biggest changes, according to Fuentes, has been the way that parents are able to interact with children on-site. “Prior to COVID, it was an open door policy. The parents could come in and out as they please, but now she just meets them at the entrance of the door. She has to receive them and the parents receive her with facemasks,” said Fuentes. When parents do occasionally choose to enter the home, they have to undergo strict protocols to ensure safety, including wearing shoe coverings and washing hands immediately upon entering. While Fuentes feels that these measures take away from her ability to build connections with the parents like she had before, she has also not had any safety issues with COVID thus far. Logistical challenges might be intimidating, but amenitizing childcare can be effectively outsourced for companies unable to do it themselves.
Many of the parents Fuentes works with are essential workers, meaning they are not working from home but are physically reporting to jobs at hospitals, grocery stores, etc. These kinds of workers have no choice but to find someone to look after their younger school-aged children while they are gone. However, even those parents working from home may need to find childcare in order to remain fully productive. Taking care of an infant or toddler while trying to work full-time is not manageable for most people. Both jobs require too much attention to be divided, but this is what many parents are attempting to do—working during naps, working late hours while the child sleeps, or relying on screen time to keep the child occupied. These are not sustainable methods for parenting or working, but unless more companies choose to make childcare an amenity (either on-site or via subsidization), there may not be any other choice, financially speaking.
Similar to the work from home movement, hybrid schooling and virtual schooling are here to stay (at least to some degree). We can hope for a vaccine that makes us invincible to this pervasive virus, but until then, hope is not enough to educate our children or ensure they’re receiving proper care. Even before the pandemic, childcare was one of the most sought after amenities that employees want regardless of where they are working. The talk right now is about satellite offices that support partial remote work, and these closer suburban locations will make it easier for families to have access to childcare amenities that are within close proximity to their homes. For the days that parents work from home, they can still easily drop their children off for daycare or virtual learning to ensure they have uninterrupted hours dedicated to work.
For offices to be the productive and creative destinations that we hope for them to be they will have to be much more supportive of working parents. While what the office of the future will look like is still completely up in the air, both existing properties and new developments should consider ways to incorporate childcare centers into their amenity offering for tenants. Workers that are parents will be much more likely to return to the office, even for a few days a week, if their office helped them find safe and constructive places for their children.