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Moving on after COVID? The childcare disruption continues


A record 104,000 people missed work in October due to childcare issues, surpassing even the early pandemic level.

Forty-seven. This is how many days of childcare the 3-year-old son of Kathryn Anne Edwards has missed in the past year.

RSV, COVID-19 and two bouts of the dreaded preschool scourge of hand, foot and mouth disease struck one after the other. The illnesses were so disruptive that the labor economist quit her full-time job at the Rand Corp., a think tank. She switched to independent contract work last month to give her more flexibility to care for her son and 4-month-old daughter.

In the first and even second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, multi-week quarantines and isolations were common for many Americans, especially children. But nine weeks of missed childcare, almost three years in?

“The rest of the world has left behind the crisis I’m still in,” says Edwards, who studies women’s issues. “That’s how it feels to me sometimes.”

This fall and winter has turned the lives of working parents of small children upside down, who thought the worst of the pandemic was behind them. The arrival of vaccines for younger children and the end of COVID exposure quarantines should bring some relief.

Instead, families were treated to what some called a “triple sickness.” Cases of the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus collided, straining children’s hospitals and threatening the already compromised child care system. Even parents of babies with less severe cases of COVID-19 have encountered 10-day isolation rules that have tested employers’ patience.

A record 104,000 people missed work in October due to childcare issues, surpassing even the early pandemic level, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Childcare-related absences fell to 59,000 in November, but the number still exceeds typical pre-pandemic levels.

The instability has hurt the finances of many working parents. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank, most of the people who missed work in October because of childcare problems were not paid.

Now doctors are bracing for a rise in sick children after families gathered for the holidays.

“I think we should be ready to do it all over again,” said Dr. Eric Biondi, director of pediatric hospital medicine at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Maryland.

Illnesses among teachers and children have put a strain on a childcare system that is already understaffed.

“This is the worst year I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” said Shaunna Baillargeon, owner of Muddy Puddles Early Learning Program in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. She faces “a constant battle of staff and children who are sick with a different virus every day,” with no backup when a teacher calls in sick.

At the Washington, D.C., daycare center where Jana Williams teaches, illness has caused classroom closures almost weekly since October. Her 19-month-old daughter is also enrolled there and gets the same viruses.

“It’s stressful,” she said before Christmas, when she was home with her sick toddler. “You want to stay home and take care of your child. But then it’s like you have to get to work.”

During the first months of the pandemic, women in the prime of their careers left the labor market much faster than men. They were more likely to work in the service-oriented fields that had been decimated, and they often cared for children, Edwards said.

Women have since returned to the workforce, particularly women of color, said economist Diane Swonk of professional services firm KPMG.

But the participation of first-age working women in the U.S. lags behind most industrialized countries, Swonk said. Proponents have long blamed the country’s lack of universal kindergarten and paid family leave.

Finding childcare and getting back to work has proven far from easy. At the height of the pandemic, more than a third of childcare jobs were lost, Edwards said. The workforce has not yet fully recovered. As of November, the country had 8% fewer childcare workers than before the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The strong labor market has driven up the cost of hiring new workers. That means childcare spots are pricey and hard to find. Even centers with openings can close if staff or children are sick.

The fact that babies and toddlers are susceptible to disease adds to the challenge. In the wake of COVID, daycare centers are more afraid to accept a snotty toddler.

Isolation guidelines have hit parents of babies particularly hard. While older preschoolers who have COVID-19 can return to wearing masks after five days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children under age 2 stay home for 10 days, or until they test negative twice, 48 hours apart .

One problem is that masks are not recommended for people under the age of 2. Due to their smaller airways, wearing them can increase the risk of suffocation, according to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio.

Not all centers adhere to CDC guidelines. But many follow it to the letter, or go even further.

When Chicago educator Tamisha Holifield and her daughter contracted COVID-19 in May, the toddler had to miss 15 days of daycare. Attacks of the common cold followed, in what Holifield described as a “constant whirlwind” of illness that was both financially and emotionally stressful.

“It is a great inconvenience. But I’m a single parent so I don’t have a choice. If I drop the ball, it’s game over,” said Holifield.

Disruption from illness can have ripple effects on young children. Overly stressed parents can become a stressor for the baby, which in turn can cause sleep, gastrointestinal or socialization problems, said Dr. Sherri Alderman, a developmental behavior pediatrician.

The situation has also put pressure on employers. Brad Lukas, chief nurse at Corewell Health Beaumont Grosse Pointe Hospital in Michigan, has seen eight or nine nurses call per shift, some because of sick children.

“We see that many people are reducing their hours,” says Lukas. His own wife cut back on nursing so that she can largely stay at home with their young children.

The ongoing chaos for young families is isolating, especially when other Americans’ lives return to normal, says Lauren Hipp, head of Early Learning at MomsRising, an advocacy group.

“I’m pretty upset about it,” said Hipp, whose own 2-, 6-, and 8-year-old children have been ravaged by illnesses including RSV. “Feeling that society has passed you by is a very difficult and lonely feeling.”


AP Medical Writer Mike Stobbe in New York contributed to this report. Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri, and Savage from Chicago.

Savage serves on the Corps for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.

The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.