The blog of the Urban Institute
November 20, 2020

Working Parents Are Relying on Others to Help with Their Children’s Distance Learning. But Who’s Helping the Helpers?

November 20, 2020

With schools and child care centers closed or re-closing across the country because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the largest public school system in the US, working parents are in a tough situation. These families must make difficult decisions regarding their need to earn a living, keep their family safe and heathy, and support their children’s learning—trade-offs that are particularly risky for parents with fewer resources, who face challenges on all sides.

Before schools returned in August, half of working parents said full-time remote learning would make it difficult or impossible for them to work. Although telecommuting parents have the benefit of being home to assist their children with distance learning, the balance between child care and meeting their job expectations is still difficult. But for parents who can’t telework, the challenges are much greater.

Urban Institute analysis of recent data from the Federal Household Pulse Survey show only 45 percent of parents with school-age children engaged in remote learning report that any adult in their household had moved to telework because of the pandemic, with 15 million parents reporting that no adult in the household had switched to telework. The Pulse Survey also shows that those who did not move to telework are disproportionately low-income and Black or Latinx parents.

Faced with these trade-offs between work and child care, an alarming number of parents, particularly women, have stepped out of the labor force. But for those still working without the option to telecommute, remote learning poses the foreboding question: Who will help the children with their schooling, if not them?

Parents going to work have relied on external caregivers for help with remote learning

To answer that question, we analyzed data from a University of Oregon survey of parents across the country with children younger than 5. For respondents working full time who have a second school-aged child engaged in distance learning,the answer has been external caregivers—relatives, neighbors, and other adults—assisting in some capacity.

These working parents were five times as likely to report relying somewhat or completely on others to assist their kids with distance learning than parents who were unemployed or laid off and were half as likely to assist their child’s online learning by themselves.

Working parents are more likely to rely on nonparental help with kids' online learning

These findings come from a survey from the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience. The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development - Early Childhood Survey is designed to gather essential information regarding the needs, health promoting behaviors, and well-being of families with children ages 5 and younger during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The data for this post were gathered from the subset of the respondents with school-age children engaged in distance learning.

For the parents in this survey who were working full time, grandparents (20.9 percent) were the most common nonparental caretaker assisting with children’s distance learning, and siblings (5.8 percent), neighbors (4.5 percent), and nannies (7.6 percent) were also named. The survey also found 40 percent of working parents used more than one approach to support their children’s remote learning, which could be a combination of parents and other caregivers or multiple nonparental caregivers. 

These emergency caregivers have become a necessary remote-learning support for working parents, but they may lack knowledge or resources necessary to assist with remote learning. Do these caregivers have internet access? Do they know how to work Zoom? Do they know who to contact if there’s a problem? As these other caregivers have taken on more responsibility, little attention has been directed toward how to assist them with the complexities of remote learning.

Three ways stakeholders and policymakers can support these caregivers

To ease some of the burdens on families facing the most significant challenges during the pandemic, policymakers and educators should invest in supporting parents and the full range of caregivers supporting distance learning. Stakeholders can reduce families’ barriers and children’s potential academic losses through three primary avenues of investment.

  1. Schools and parent-serving organizations should reach out to working parents and other caregivers. Through outreach to parents, afterschool providers, employers, and children’s caregivers, educators can identify how to best meet the needs of children involved in remote learning whose parents must go to work. In these conversations, schools should ask who will oversee their children’s distance learning and how can the school support those caregivers.
  2. Schools should provide training, resources, and technology to those caring for children of working parents to support distance learning. In Maryland, Washington County Public Schools provided a day-long training session for child care and afterschool providers to demonstrate remote learning best practices. These trainings can help a student’s caregiver answer questions and address problems that may arise during remote learning. Schools also need to take active steps to ensure that whoever is supervising a student’s remote learning has access to the internet and other necessary technology.
  3. Federal and state governments should expand funding for child care subsidies and afterschool programs. The parents most likely to be called into work have lower incomes and have limited access to affordable, quality child care and afterschool options. Policymakers can ensure these parents have equal access by expanding funding for child care subsidies and incentivizing collaboration between the education system, child care providers, and the child care subsidy system. Georgia and Virginia have each taken steps in this direction, with the SOLVE (Supporting Onsite Learning for Virtual Education Program) model in Georgia helping pay for care and supervision of children in distance learning and the Virginia Department of Education and Social Services (PDF) providing clear and comprehensive guidance around working with child caregivers to support remote learning.

With more working parents gravitating towards smaller, home-based settings for distance learning, it’s important for each of these steps to be available for the full range of caregivers.

Parents with lower incomes, higher health risks, and children with greater school challenges will find it hardest to balance working, staying safe and healthy, and supporting their children. Without intervention, the inequitable remote learning experience observed in the spring could continue and deepen the damage to children’s academic success, threaten parent’s ability to work, and undermine our economic recovery.

But with increased outreach, training, and funding for the range of helpers that parents are relying on, these parents could go into work without worrying about jeopardizing their children’s education.

Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

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