The pandemic is far from over for working moms

Taryn Morrissey | Apr 8, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic changed lives overnight. Working parents – especially mothers – have struggled to meet their work and family demands without in-person child care, school, or outside help. Those who cannot telework have faced the impossible decision to go to work for a needed paycheck or care for children.

With adult vaccination rates rising and COVID cases declining, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But no vaccines have been approved yet for children under age 16, and vaccines for children under age 12 aren’t expected until 2022. Without a pediatric vaccine, child care programs and schools must continue to adhere to the public health measures we have all followed for the past year, with serious ramifications for caregiving scenarios. Physical distancing, for example, limits the number of children able to attend child care or school at one time. As a result, child care programs have limited enrollments (and higher costs) and many K-12 schools remain in hybrid mode, offering a mix of in-person and virtual education.

A CDC survey conducted in January and February found that nationally only 36% of fourth-graders and 28% of eighth-graders attended in-person school full-time – with children of color much less likely to have the option for part-time or full-time in-person school. All this while children (and parents) face higher needs, as financial hardship, social isolation, and virtual schooling – compounded by limited access to the internet and devices – have contributed to learning loss and skyrocketing mental health problems. Children and families of color have disproportionately borne the physical health, learning loss, economic hardship, and other harms of the pandemic.

Access to full-time, in-person school may be greater in the fall, but that is unclear. The new CDC guidelines recommend individuals maintain three feet of distance, which can allow more children in a classroom than the previous six feet recommendation. Even so, it will not be possible for some schools to bring back all children full-time due to space and staffing constraints, especially at schools that were overcrowded prior to the pandemic, without substantial investments and planning that must begin now.

The parents of children with health conditions or from groups disproportionately impacted by the virus are concerned about sending their children to in-person school or child care prior to a pediatric vaccine anyway. A recent GOTB poll found that two in three mothers are eager for in-person school, but the majority remain wary of sending their children back without safety precautions.

Like so much of the pandemic, the future is murky – but it is highly likely that many workers will continue to have only partial or no child care for the rest of 2021 and beyond. Yet, plans to relax public health regulations, resume economic activity, and bring workers back in-person have largely occurred absent of the discussion of child care or educational needs. This despite 78% of women wanting more employer flexibility beyond the “9-to-5” model.

Given that nationally an estimated one-third of the workforce has child caregiving responsibilities, the availability of in-person school and child care must be central in employers’ and policymakers’ conversations and planning. Otherwise, we are likely to see (more) mothers stepping back from the labor force, with long-term consequences for their and families’ economic security.

We all want to put the pandemic behind us. But the reality is that until there is a widely available, safe and effective pediatric vaccine or a concerted investment in schools and child care, children and parents will face constrained options. And if history bears out, women will pick up the caregiving slack. The economy has long benefited from the unpaid labor of many women, mostly women of color. Ignoring caregiving realities now will be detrimental to gender, racial, and ethnic equity moving forward.


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