Parents are watching kids in shifts and sharing caregivers as schools shut down across the US due to coronavirus fears

  • Under normal circumstances, finding reliable and affordable childcare can be challenging for families in the US.
  • During the coronavirus outbreak, when more than 2 million students are home due to school closures, parents are under added pressure to identify plausible childcare options as they continue to work. 
  • Many parents are getting resourceful. Some are sharing childcare duties within the home, while others are looking to neighbors to pitch in.
  • Some families are still sending their children to playgroups that are taking extra precautions.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Securing reliable and affordable childcare is hard enough on a normal day. But during a pandemic, parents say it's nearly impossible.

To help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, officials are taking drastic measures. As of Monday, more than 100 US school districts were closed, which means more than 2 million students are now at home. Thousands of people are also working home after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines encouraging people to telecommute, if their jobs allow. 

At the same time, many daycares have closed, and many parents have asked their caregivers to stop working, as a precautionary measure. But as parents' work obligations remain the same and for some, are just beginning to intensify, parents are struggling to find caregiving options that are safe and feasible. 

Many, as a result, are turning to makeshift options. Some parents are sharing childcare duties with their partners. Other parents are contemplating childcare swaps with community members. Some families, without another alternative, are sending their kids to programs that offer a couple of hours of activities, so parents can get some time to themselves.

Many parents are trying to share childcare duties while also working from home

For many parents, the only option is to split the workday. One parent works the morning hours, while the other manages the childcare duties, and then they switch. It's an imperfect solution by design. 

Jessica, who asked to only use her first name since her media company doesn't permit interviews, is currently trying this system out with her husband. The pair has a baby and told their nanny to stop coming to work due to concerns over exposure to the coronavirus. The plan was for Jessica to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and for her husband to clock in from 5 p.m. to midnight. So far, the plan is just "going OK," said Jessica, who lives in New York City. 

"By 11 a.m. we both had to do conference calls, but the baby needed, us too. We had to constantly apologize for him shrieking in the background," Jessica told Insider. "I feel lucky we have flexibility, and secure jobs, but we're exhausted and the day isn't even half over."

Many couples are sharing childcare duties while working from home, but it's an imperfect solution.

The childcare load can't be shared equally either, which can foster resentment, a number of parents told Insider.

A lawyer and mother of two who lives in Manhattan, who requested anonymity because of her job, also asked her nanny to stay home due to coronavirus concerns. She told Insider that her husband had to do an "extra long" childcare shift on Monday morning. 

Despite exposure risks, other families are trying to hire nannies now for the first time. 

Nancy Bushkin, vice president of public relations at, a job posting platform for caregivers, told Insider she's seen double-digit percent increases in requests in cities where schools are closed. She expects those numbers to rise in the coming weeks.

But there may simply not be enough available workers. 

Parents have to reconsider playdates and sharing resources

While many families would like to share resources, they aren't sure if it's the right thing to do because of coronavirus exposure concerns. 

Holly Fernandez Lynch, an assistant professor of medical ethics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a mother of three, is facing that very question. Lynch's husband is a stay-at-home dad who spends his days with their children and also often provides last-minute childcare services to others at their Swarthmore, Pennsylvania home.

Her children are 3, 6, and 10, and they, and their friends, are now home since their schools have closed until March 30. Swarthmore is right near Montgomery County, which has had at least 24 confirmed cases of coronavirus.

On an ordinary day at the Fernandez Lynch home, there would be a gaggle of neighborhood kids playing after school.  On Lynch's block alone, there are at least 15 kids under the age of 12 who hang out in the afternoons. As much as Lynch wants to help out her neighbors, she's unsure whether she should continue doing so, given the social distancing guidelines. 

"Should we be pairing up as families to swap kids with each other or is it OK for a full block to be swapping childcare?" Lynch wondered. 

Children are less susceptible to developing the coronavirus, but they can transmit COVID-19

Flickr / Raúl Hernández González

In the case of the coronavirus, kids' risk of contracting the disease is low, but children can be carriers of COVID-19, and transmit it to others. The CDC has said nothing about playdates, but infectious diseases specialists have advised against it. 

Childcare is increasingly unaffordable and difficult to find

It's understandable why Lynch is so concerned about how her neighbors, and their children, will fare.

A 2016 survey of over 1,000 parents found that a third had trouble finding adequate childcare. It's also exorbitantly expensive. In 23 states, childcare costs more than college tuition. 

For lower income families, who often depend on cheaper, but subpar, unregulated daycare centers, or tend to rely on older family members who are at a higher risk of coronavirus-related complications, this process is even more challenging.

"The bottom line is, there's still this three-legged stool of quality, access and cost, and to find all three, unless you are upper middle class, it is very difficult to do," Rhian Allvin, chief executive of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, told NPR in 2016.

Some new group childcare programs have been getting backlash


Some children's programs have stepped up to offer additional options for families in need, but the responses have been mixed. 

Nicole Joy Elmgart, co-founder of Tree Bath, an after-school program that takes place in New York parks, recently created a daytime program for children who are out of school. While many families were grateful, and Elmgart said that there's been a "surge" in interest, some have said they thought it was irresponsible.

"We've heard some people say: 'I can't believe you're going to be intermingling kids,'" she said. But Elmgart said that she feels her approach is safe. 

"We're not an indoor play structure," Elmgart told Insider. "We're not hosting a birthday party with 40 kids from all over the place that are cross contaminating."

Elmgart is limiting her classes to five kids, all from the same neighborhoods. Elmgart added that due to the variance in guidance, people shouldn't "shame" how some families decide to approach this stressful period.

Hiring someone to take care of your kids now requires new guidelines

Scott Underwood, a father of two, could benefit from a program like Tree Bath, but hasn't heard of any near where he lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Underwood, vice president of Yello, a software company, works from home, but is now struggling to balance his job requirements with his childcare responsibilities since his children's schools closed.

Underwood has had to shoulder the brunt of the childcare, since his wife works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can't help out as much right now. 

"As you can imagine, she's pretty busy," Underwood told Insider of his wife's job demands. "So basically, it's just been me with the kids here."

Underwood has reached out to nannies he's worked with in the past. Some are unavailable, others are too scared to work right now and some just aren't responding. He's also asked his neighbors if they'd like to trade off watching each other's children, but many are too anxious to get groups of children together right now. 

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that we might be able to get one of the ladies at my daughter's daycare center," he said. "To come at least part time, to give us some breathing room."

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