Under Pressure: Working Parents Face Uncertainty About K-12 School Reopenings

July 31, 2020
Author: Mara Zemicael

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the economy and millions of lives. The latest uncertainty resulting from the virus is how schools plan to reopen this fall. K-12 school districts across the U.S. are still scrambling to figure out their operating protocols. School officials are concerned about the spread of the virus and what additional costs they may incur, as they prepare to meet the COVID-19 prevention measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and their local officials.

With schools possibly not reopening at full capacity, parents may struggle to balance childcare while working.

While school officials find themselves in a challenging predicament, parents and students also are grappling with what this school year will bring. For many parents, where their children will attend classes and the frequency and length of time of in-person versus virtual classes are still unknown.

This is important because of the impact to parents’ ability to work. Prior to the pandemic, most parents of school-aged children in the U.S. were employed. Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 72.3% of mothers with children under age 18 were working in 2019. The labor force participation for fathers in 2019 with children under age 18 was 93.4%. An estimated 56.6 million students attended elementary, middle, and high schools across the country in 2019 per the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Parenting During the Pandemic Is Stressful

One working parent who has felt the stress of having children home during the day while working her regular full-time job from home is Marguerite E.* A medical social worker in the Dallas area, Marguerite E. had previously been working remotely before her two children’s school and daycare closed as part of a shutdown order.

“It was a stressful time. You can’t focus on work if you’re worried about your children’s well-being and where they are in the home,” the mother of an 8-year-old and 5-year-old says. “I’m opting for private school because I want a smaller class size for my children, but I want them to be in school for their mental health and social and emotional well-being.”

Related: More Women Than Men Are Losing Jobs During the Pandemic

She is not alone. Parents everywhere have been struggling with how to juggle childcare with the disruption of pandemic-related safety measures. Even the CDC addressed how stressful the current situation is to both children and parents in a July 23 press release, when it released guidelines for the coming school year.

“It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. “The CDC resources released today will help parents, teachers and administrators make practical, safety-focused decisions as this school year begins. I know this has been a difficult time for our nation’s families. School closures have disrupted normal ways of life for children and parents, and they have had negative health consequences on our youth. CDC is prepared to work with K-12 schools to safely reopen while protecting the most vulnerable.”

Working Parents Want More Flexibility from Employers


While parents are worried about their children’s emotional well-being while they’re not attending school, they’re also frustrated with their employers. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that among companies that have employees working on-site, 42.0% do not have a committed plan to help employees balance childcare responsibilities during this unprecedented health crisis. In fact, only 32.0% of organizations requiring employees to return to the office have dedicated childcare plans for their employees.

SHRM also found that industry affected policy differences. Most knowledge-industry organizations – 71.0% – have or plan to create a worksite plan around childcare, while 28.0% of physical industry organizations do not intend to include childcare considerations in their return-to-work plans. Companies that employ mostly knowledge workers are more likely to allow employees to work from home and offer more flexibility in their schedules, while workers that require employees to physically be in the workplace usually do not have these options.

Marguerite E. believes employers need to consider how childcare will affect their employees’ performance. “With work, the stress comes in when employers don’t offer flexibility for employees. We need a balance between work and home life,” she says.

Limited childcare options may impact parents’ productivity or their ability to work outside of the home. During the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey between April 23 and May 5, parents spent an average of 13.1 hours per week on teaching activities while school was in session at home, which averaged to about two hours per day. For children who will only attend in-person classes on a part-time basis or in a virtual classroom, this number is expected to remain the same.

In 2018, a report by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions (NAHPC) found that employers missed out on $225.5 billion a year due to lost productivity related to mental wellness. This loss may increase, as the pandemic adds more stress to the lives of working parents.

Financial Difficulties Increase for Many Working Parents


Besides the time constraints, some working parents are also facing financial difficulties caused by the pandemic. As of June 30, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that about 11.8 million children in the U.S. live in households that missed a mortgage or rent payment or sought a deferment, while roughly 3.9 million children are experiencing COVID-19-induced food shortages. Approximately 1.3 million children live in households facing both types of insecurities. In the most recent Household Pulse Survey from July 9 – July 14, 17.0% of households with children under the age of 18 indicated that they did not have confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent.

Without access to childcare or the ability to work remotely, some full-time working parents are finding themselves forced to either work part-time or to indefinitely exit the workplace. This is especially true for mothers, who often shoulder more of the child-rearing responsibilities.

Cleo, an employee benefits platform that caters to parents of young children, saw this trend in a 136-member survey in June. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed stated at least one parent had either left the workforce or switched to part-time, usually the mother (70.0% of the time). In its April survey, only 20.0% of respondents had considered exiting the workforce. More women will likely leave the workforce or reduce hours, as respondents reported that only 35.0% of them had some form of childcare, compared to 50.0% in April. Another survey, conducted by Northeastern University from May 10 to June 22 of 2,557 working parents, found that 13.0% of U.S. parents had to quit a job or reduce their work hours due to lack of childcare.

The economic loss will likely continue, as working parents struggle to find reliable options. The reliance on grandparents or other family members to watch children has decreased because of fear of spreading COVID-19. Childcare centers have also found that social distancing measures limit the numbers of children they can enroll, although demand has increased.

Working parents face many challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some face job loss or reduced hours, while others deal with time management issues caused by demanding jobs with employers that do not offer flexibility for childcare needs if children aren’t able to return to full-time, in-person classes.

ThinkWhy continuously monitors and forecasts labor data at all levels, measuring impact to MSAs, industries, occupations and businesses across the U.S.

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.