Two moms in New Mexico share the struggles they’ve faced since the coronavirus crisis shut down their early childhood education center.

When New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave early childhood education centers in her state the option to shut down alongside public schools on March 13, the vast majority of them did. Large, extended families are prevalent in New Mexico, so there is often someone to care for kids when school isn’t in session. 

Not everyone, however, has that safety net. 

Over the past several weeks, single parents, and especially those without reliable family support, have faced challenging decisions about patching child care together, missing paid work, or bringing kids to work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Amanda Kelly works full time as a community support worker at one of the University of New Mexico’s hospital outpatient clinics. Her job is an essential one in the COVID-19 pandemic because she helps connect people to resources like utilities, rent, and childcare assistance, among other things. 

With her childcare center closed indefinitely, Kelly has been scrambling to ensure she has someone to watch her son. Kelly’s mother and her son’s father live in the Albuquerque area, but each of them lives in distant areas of the city that require a long commute. Sometimes, due to the commute time, Kelly leaves her son overnight with her mom or her son’s father. “He keeps having random crying fits because he says, ‘I miss mom! I miss mom!,’” Kelly said. “It’s completely throwing him off of his routine.” 

Community centers are still offering child care, and some emergency childcare centers have opened, but the list of essential workers is a long one and Kelly isn’t sure that the open centers can meet the full need for childcare. Other parents from her son’s childcare center are using emergency centers, but this option requires more out-of-pocket expenses and other logistical considerations. 

While New Mexico has made efforts to find out what essential workers are paying for emergency child care so that they can offer some kind of compensation, no one knows yet if this is a guarantee. Like Kelly, many other parents at her center rely on state subsidies and don’t have the money to pay for additional child care upfront. 

The emergency childcare centers also come with their own health concerns. A new cohort of kids with a new pool of germs being thrown together from different environments could be riskier for the spread of the novel coronavirus than keeping the same group of kids together. 

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The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how broken the U.S. childcare system is. Unlike K-12 schools that are publicly funded, privately funded early childhood education can significantly stretch a family’s resources—and especially so when there is only one parent in the home. 

“The problem is that for some reason we’ve decided as a society that when kids turn five they become our responsibility socially,” said Grace Decker, a Zero to Five coordinator with United Way in Missoula, Montana. “But until five, it’s very much a private responsibility, and not only is it private but you’re on your own.” 

As most parents can attest, the cost of child care is steep and can outstrip rent or mortgage payments. According to the Center for American Progress, childcare costs can range from $800 to $1,200 a month for lower quality care up to $1,300 to $2,200 for high-quality care. Still, due to necessary laws restricting how many children each educator can care for, most families’ tuition goes directly to wages and benefits, as well as paying for food, supplies, and rent, and utilities.

For single parents in particular, making one’s income stretch to cover quality child care is often impossible, even in states like New Mexico where low-income families can qualify for state childcare assistance. High quality childcare centers often require a co-pay to cover the true costs of care, and even a co-pay can be too much for single parents to afford. 

“The American childcare system was already a failed market, and now COVID-19 is pushing it toward collapse,” Luiba Grechen Shirley, founder of Vote Mama Foundation and Vote Mama PAC, wrote in a Time Magazine op-ed recently.

When child care is unavailable, too expensive, or poor quality, these barriers create great stress for single-parent families, and family stress can in turn lead to harsher parenting and potential trauma, all of which have negative impacts on children’s health later in life. 

“The business model is broken,” Decker said. “This is bad for providers, bad for families, bad for our kids, and bad for our future. These kids will be performing your knee surgery, or driving your bus—it’s not actually going to be that long before they’re taking care of us.” 

While some early childhood educators are weathering temporary closures due to COVID-19, many are facing permanent closure. Parents without work cannot continue to pay for child care when centers are closed. Simultaneously, essential workers are scrambling for alternate solutions, and parents who live in states that are beginning to reopen are finding themselves in a similar situation. 

As Shirley penned in her op-ed: “The question of when America will go back to work has dominated the public discourse, but whenever that happens, who will watch our children?”

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The situation is even tougher for parents who don’t have the live-in support of a spouse or partner. “It’s extremely difficult as a single parent,” Kelly said. “I’m lucky that his father has stepped up a little bit, but really his father is not a reliable person. Before his father’s work closed, I had no options.”

Kelly’s workplace has a strict attendance policy and although she receives sick time, she has already used all of her days this year because her son was hospitalized for a respiratory illness in February. With the daycare closures and inconsistent help, she’s now eating into her vacation days, too. Like many employers, her workplace penalizes her for unplanned absences and doesn’t consider childcare struggles to be a valid reason to miss work.

“America very much has the narrative that we’re built on working-class families, and this upward mobility, when really culturally we don’t take care of single parents, especially single mothers,” Kelly said. “If anything, we penalize people for being single mothers in our culture.” 

Dené Shelton, 39, is another single mother who has found her life turned upside down since the coronavirus crisis gripped the United States. Until recently, Shelton earned $13 an hour as an administrative assistant at the University of New Mexico—even though she has two masters’ degrees. On April 15, however, she was laid off and is waiting to see if unemployment comes in. 

Shelter and daughter (image courtesy of subject)

“I’ve been underemployed since I had her,” Shelton said about her four-year-old daughter. “I’ve been working demanding, underpaid positions while doing a job search for something that pays at least $50,000 a year.” 

She had just interviewed for one such job when everything shut down, and she’s not feeling optimistic about the position still being available when the shutdown is over. Gov. Grisham extended her stay-at-home order through “at least” May 15. 

Shelton’s daughter’s daycare still hasn’t reopened, and there is no word yet on when it will. In the meantime, she is anxious about her daughter missing out on the kindergarten preparation period that is often so vital for kids entering public schools. And because Shelton had to take leave without pay prior to being laid off, she’s playing catch-up with her bills. 

She’s also worried about the future. Employers are continuing to close down and lay people off, so it’s unclear whether there will be jobs available by the end of July, which is the end date for the unemployment she can qualify for. 

Another concern, of course, is care for her child. It’s still unclear whether New Mexico schools will reopen in the fall. Without school and before- and after-care for her daughter, Shelton may find herself locked in the same bind of having no one to watch her daughter while she’s at work. 

As the authors of a recent Center for American Progress brief write: “Child care is essential infrastructure. Without reliable and affordable child care options, millions of parents will not be able to return to work when the pandemic passes.”

For now, Shelton is focused on balancing job hunting with providing pre-K learning opportunities to her daughter. 

“Her school was such a huge support system for us, and she talks about it all the time,” Shelton said. “She says ‘I miss my school, I miss my school, when is it coming back?’ and I say ‘I don’t know.'”

This article was supported by Center for Community Change.