SPRINGFIELD – Pre-pandemic, childcare was already a challenge for working families to balance. Now, families are having to adapt to comprehensive distance learning, and childcare providers are struggling to stay afloat and support families with young children — all while adults are either working from home or in person.

To bring more awareness to this crisis and identify solutions for employers to make it easier for families to return to work, the Springfield Chamber of Commerce held a virtual program, Return to Work: The Childcare Dilemma. The talk included Julia Barfield, senior manager of policy and programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and Noah Van Horn, Springfield Public Schools psychologist and positive behavioral interventions and support coach. 

Van Horn said that the general impact that parents and students faced was uncertainty: uncertainty about how school will look with it being in-person, virtual or a hybrid, uncertainty about childcare, worries about lost instruction and academic gain, concerns for graduation and secondary education, and concerns for the health and safety of self, family and friends.

For students, the impact has been a loss of social interaction, which Van Horn called “detrimental” although he pointed out more students are interacting together online; a loss of instruction due to closures; added distractions at home with parents working from home as well or if students have to care for their siblings; and missing out on major milestones. 

Youths from marginalized communities have also reported experiencing disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance abuse and elevated suicidal ideation. 

For families, the largest impact has been juggling work, child care and their learner. Van Horn said it’s a steep learning curve for more advanced subjects that makes teaching a child more difficult. There is also a lack of time and many parents can’t take time out of their work day. Families also have to deal with technology issues and a lack of mental health care.

It’s not all bad, however. Van Horn noted that the focus on care and connection to meet the needs of students and families have improved as there has been increased collaboration with community partners and school staff. 

From an employer’s perspective, Barfield said childcare is what keeps the U.S. working and high quality, affordable and accessible early childhood education ensures a strong workforce in the future. She added that it’s a two-generation solution.  

According to research that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has done, the workforce is very different than it was 10 to 20 years ago. Almost 13 million Americans have children under the age of six and the breakdown in childcare costs business more than $3 billion a year. Jobs are being lost because there isn’t stable child care; this year 11% of parents declined new opportunities like promotions or a new job due to childcare. 

“We’re already paying for the problem,” Barfield said.

To address the future workforce of tomorrow, Barfield said the focus needs to start before school. Students learn to read up to third grade before that switches into reading to learn, but if a child is behind by third grade it will impact the rest of their academic life. 

“Schools aren’t designed to catch kids up,” she said. “We’re asking teachers to do something they’re not taught to do.” 

Now with COVID-19, childcare providers are struggling to stay open or re-open with decreased capacity and increased operational costs. The industry is made up of 675,000 providers, mostly small businesses, and with COVID half of these providers are not reopening. Although a third of parents said they would return to pre-covid arrangements in the future, Barfield pointed out that they might not be able to because many won’t exist. 

“When a childcare provider closes down, no one comes in to fill in,” she said. 

This, mixed with one in five parent’s uncertainty about returning to a pre-covid working situation, Barfield said that parents are now forced to make permanent career decisions based on temporary childcare solutions because they can’t wait it out. 

Barfield did say that there are pockets of hope that she is seeing, and one of them is the fact employers are starting to engage more with childcare. Their data showed that 89% of employers say they are aware of childcare needs and 20% would offer additional childcare benefits. 

“It’s an opportunity to engage employers in a new way,” she said. “If they recognize the impact and want to be part of the solution.”