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Our collective amnesia about childcare

Kirsten Hove, second from right, does stretching exercises with children.
Kirsten Hove, second from right, does stretching exercises with children at Ladybug Childcare/Preschool in San Francisco’s Marina District on Aug. 13, 2020.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

This is the Sept. 27, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Do you ever get the feeling that we can only remember one thing at a time?

I don’t mean us, specifically, as parents — though with weeks like this one, which involved coordinating several different non-COVID vaccinations, reams of insurance paperwork and half a dozen PCR tests, it’s baffling to me how any of us routinely remember to eat, sleep and bathe.

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I mean us as a society. More specifically, I mean how we as a society understand the work of caring for one another in relation to the work of everything else. For a brief moment — or, rather, for a series of brief moments — it seemed to me that the pandemic had revealed the way work and care were woven together. And then, just as suddenly, it seems we all forgot.

At least, this was the impression I got browsing through last week’s top headlines, many of which emerged from this September 2021 Treasury Department report. After months of hand-wringing and prognostication about the mismatch between open jobs and available workers, it seemed as though everyone suddenly remembered how much work is dependent on childcare.

“People can’t get back to work in other occupations if they don’t have access to stable, good childcare,” said Lea Austin, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, whose most recent research helps explain the current shortage. “It feels like we’re already losing some of the most critical lessons of this pandemic when it comes to care and education in America.”

To be fair, I knew relatively little about our childcare infrastructure before March 2020. I’d worked in daycares as a teenager, and had put my son in one just after he got his 2-month vaccines. I’d also struggled mightily to find a licensed provider when we moved from New York to L.A. — yet I had only a rudimentary sense of the rules and bureaucracies that governed the daycare system, and how they differed from K-12 schools.

What I learned in the next year of my reporting was both shocking and obvious.

“Our childcare workforce is 16% smaller than it was going into the pandemic, and the workforce was not big enough then, so we’re really struggling now,” Austin said.

Individually, a lot of us already knew this. But collectively, we did not. Briefly, fleetingly, the pandemic forced us to acknowledge that childcare and education are not actually separate, and that however loudly K-12 teachers might proclaim themselves “not babysitters,” they had nevertheless been providing government-subsidized childcare to millions of workers who now did not have it.

“As schools shut down, it became obvious to everybody how much care and education are linked, and how much of that time in school is also providing a service to families and the economy so people can be earning,” Austin said.

The government acknowledged this too, in part, by allowing daycares to stay open while K-12 schools were closed, and by rapidly expanding access to childcare vouchers.

Briefly, fleetingly, we were forced to reckon with how much of our “essential work” — the labor our society cannot do without — is performed by parents, and specifically mothers. At the same time, we saw how many other mothers, particularly poor mothers of color, could be cast aside when it suited the market, regardless of how essential their work was to them and their families.

Now, suddenly, the market wants those mothers back. I’ve read about this every day for months — there’s jobs! jobs! jobs! but no workers to do them, and no one can figure out why. Jobless benefits have been cut, wages raised, and yet incomprehensibly the workforce has not returned.

It seems none of these people has ever read the quarantine protocol for their child’s school. None of them managed remote education last year, or bit down their nails waiting to see if classrooms would fully reopen this fall. None of them agonized over whether to keep an unvaccinated child remote, or how to replace a lost aunt or grandmother in their delicate schema of childcare. And none of them have apparently ever done the math I do every day as a working mom, counting every dollar I earn against every hour of care that I pay for while I earn it.

“Companies like Target and Starbucks are raising wages, they’re offering benefits, they’re doing what you need to do to attract people into work. But that’s not available for childcare,” Austin explained. “Most childcare is paid for by families, and so in order to put more money into programs to support early childcare workers, that would mean increasing fees for families.”

This was, and remains, childcare’s central problem: Parents pay more than they can afford, yet workers still make less than they can live on. In a new report out this month, a startling percent of California providers said they would have closed without the life raft of pandemic subsidies last year — but data show many of those closures would have happened regardless, if not last year than this year or in 2022.

“If you have access to better pay and health insurance [in another job], we can’t fault people for not coming back to do this work,” Austin said. “We can’t get to good, stable childcare if we can’t stabilize and support the early care and education workforce, and until we intervene with some public resources, we’re running in circles.”

This month’s Treasury report goes into some detail describing why and how the private market has failed to create and sustain adequate childcare for the American workforce. Its authors are unequivocal that the system will fail without public help. Yet publicly funding childcare — something that most developed nations already do — requires first publicly acknowledging who we want to come back to work.

“It’s really daunting and frustrating because it really does just seem so obvious,” Austin said. “The reality is most parents do work, whether people want that to be the case or not.”

Program swamped, app stalled, Black children criminalized ...

In other news ...

An independent study program operated by Los Angeles Unified has been swamped with students after it was retooled to accommodate families reluctant to send their kids back to in-person instruction. The Times’ Howard Blume and Melissa Gomez looked into the problem.

“The average person isn’t even cognizant of the implicit ways in which Black children are treated differently and criminalized,” says Kristin Henning, a Washington lawyer who has written a new book about that topic. She did a Q&A with The Times.

And Facebook is putting the brakes on a new Instagram Kids app after getting hit by criticism that it would be harmful for children, especially teenage girls.

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What else we’re reading

The TV show “Tad Lasso” can be profane. One dad says it’s just the right show for his teenage boys. Washington Post

Schools nationwide are coping with a surge in disruptive behavior, reflecting the stress the pandemic has caused. Chalkbeat

In response to that problem, here are some ideas for how to cope with kids’ pandemic emotions. KQED Mind/Shift

Want to know how to motivate your kids to do well in school? A team of Canadian and Australian researchers have some thoughts after reading 144 studies on the subject. The Hechinger Report

Why English learners need more than phonics to master reading. EdSource

The closure of the lone labor and delivery center on the Mendocino County coast has left expecting mothers in that part of California with long, treacherous drives to give birth. Mendocino Voice

A San Diego-area mom who nearly lost her daughter to anorexia nervosa now coaches parents on how to help their kids overcome eating disorders. San Diego Union-Tribune

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