Although parenting has never been without challenges, the spread of COVID-19 certainly exacerbated them and brought unimagined new ones, and even after more normal life returns their effect will surely linger and must be addressed. That is among the lessons of The Sentinel’s months-long “Pandemic Parenting” series that has taken a deep look at the stresses parents have confronted during the pandemic in raising, educating and providing for their children, and in coping with the worry and pressures that followed.
“Pandemic Parenting,” which concluded recently, included extensive reporting by Sentinel reporter Jack Rooney and contributing writer Meg McIntyre on various aspects of parenting and highlighted how different rearing a family while keeping or trying to find a job, or just keeping sane, has become over the past 16 months. The series also involved three community listening sessions, shaped by issues parents are facing, that brought dialog with childcare, education, health care and other experts and offers advice and guidance in facing challenges brought on by the pandemic that still continue. Our reporting and video of the sessions, plus a listing of available programs and providers, are a continuing resource and remain available to all at www.sentinelsource.com/pandemic_parenting.
The series also highlighted anew a previously existing challenge — crisis might now be a better word — that, without effective long-term solutions, will continue to hold back this region and the state and country even after a recovery from the pandemic. That, of course, is the shortage of affordable childcare options. Locally, that’s been a significant obstacle to attracting and retaining businesses and workers here and is as important to address for the region’s long-term sustainability as better workforce training or any other issue.
The importance of childcare accessibility only grew during the pandemic. Social-distancing and other restrictions limited provider offerings. Parents working remotely from home often found themselves also providing childcare, including for kids attending school remotely, forcing some to quit their job. And parents laid off during or since the shutdown who lack affordable childcare have been hampered in rejoining the workforce.
An oft-heard criticism of the enhanced unemployment benefits that the federal government has provided during the pandemic — including, here in New Hampshire, from the governor — is that they provide an incentive not to rejoin the workforce. But there’s growing nationwide evidence that lack of affordable childcare options is among the factors that are significant deterrents to getting or even applying for a job. Those so eager to attribute indolence to the unemployed should instead turn their sights on addressing childcare to help tackle the worker shortage so many businesses are facing. To its credit, the state has recently announced new initiatives, funded with federal COVID-19 relief funds, to help with childcare workforce recruitment and affordability.
The “Pandemic Parenting” series was intended as much to identify possible solutions as to report on challenges, and there have been innovative approaches to addressing childcare needs during the pandemic. To cite one, the Keene Family YMCA’s daycare program has helped families adapt to remote and hybrid learning.
And other possible solutions predating the pandemic continue to offer promise. One is the State Early Learning Alliance, which is in effect a cooperative for its member independent childcare centers, enabling them to pool resources and purchasing power to reduce costs. That’s particularly critical for smaller programs that lack support staff to free up early educators from administrative tasks. There are, however, cost and other barriers that have hampered SELA’s growth — Keene Day Care Center is the only member in the Monadnock Region — and the state would do well to find ways to encourage this promising initiative, even if it requires spending some of its own money.
But realizing economies of scale will go only so far. As Aly Richards, CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, which is working on a promising legislative solution to build a sustainable statewide childcare system in Vermont, observed about the fragile nationwide system that’s facing rising program costs and staff shortages, “The financing model is such that parents are paying too much, and early educators can’t afford to get paid less.” And experts The Sentinel spoke with for “Pandemic Parenting” noted that government pandemic funding for childcare has been a good start, but more is needed long term. “You need public investment and policy change to fix this,” Richards said. “There are no magic bullets.”