America is in the middle of a pandemic but it is also in the middle of an unprecedented childcare crisis. With schools and day cares closed and babysitters, nannies and grandparents out of reach parents are overworked and overwhelmed.
In some nations parents who must stay home without pay due to the closures of schools and daycares qualify for income supports, but the United States does not have such a program and so many parents who cannot work from home—those working in retail, food service, janitorial and health care—are facing a desperate dilemma.
Do parents break quarantine by having someone watch their children while they go to work, or do they lose their job?
As Nicole Rodgers, founder and executive director of Family Story, a think tank dedicated to understanding how individuals are forming and reforming families in America, told CNBC, this is an unimaginably impossible situation for many working parents.
"This is when we would ideally lean on our communities and share the burden of filling in and caring for each others' kids," Rodgers explains. "But when we're being asked to practice social distancing, that might not be feasible. It's a truly impossible situation."
These are desperate times and for some parents these times are going to call for desperate measures. The very people in occupations we now deem heroic are having to weigh the risks: Keep the kids quarantined and lose the family's income or break social distancing guidelines so that someone can watch the children while parents work.
That's why, even though older adults are more at risk for COVID-19 and that kids can often be asymptomatic carriers, grandparents are stepping in to fill the gap (and are potentially risking their health to do so.
"We're the day care now," 64-year-old grandmother Terri Barhite told the Boston Globe after her toddler grandson's daycare closed. "We're reading Sesame Street."
It's easy to see why in some states childcare centers have reopened for all workers despite risks to the children enrolled—because as Barhite's situation proves, they are such a vital service and parents cannot work without them. Some local governments have recognized that, but more needs to be done nationally.
In some states, frontline workers can access subsidies and help finding childcare. In Connecticut, for example, workers can access $500 a week in childcare subsidies and help finding a childcare provider that is still open. In Virginia, the state is spending federal grant money to keep childcare centers open for vital workers like doctors and sanitation workers.
But across the country, many centers that have closed will never reopen as they will never recover from this loss of income. A new report from the Center for American Progress estimates that without public funding, the nation could lose 49% of licenced childcare spots during the pandemic.
"Families were struggling to find and afford child care before the new coronavirus, but our estimates make clear that if Congress fails to act, this pandemic could have a catastrophic toll on America's childcare system," says Simon Workman, director of Early Childhood Policy at CAP. "This will have profound implications for working families as states begin to ease social distancing guidance; for the nation's ability to mount a robust economic recovery; and for women, who shoulder a disproportionate share of in-home family caregiving responsibilities."
That's why childcare advocates and some politicians, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are calling on Congress to help this industry as it has helped others.
Even before the pandemic, finding affordable, quality childcare was a huge challenge for working parents with 2 out of 3 families struggling to find care that meets their standards. Childcare needs to be part of America's plan for economic recovery because the system was broken before and now it is shattered.