Commentary

Chloe Learey: Where are the children? And how are they?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Chloe Learey, who is the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and who serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council.

One of the questions we have been asking since schools have reopened with limited in-person instruction is “where are the children?” Even though investments have been made to create child care hubs for school-age children on their remote learning days, these hubs are not full and some never opened due to a lack of demand. Many child care programs are also not fully enrolled, causing deeper losses than usual in an already thin-margin business.

So, where are the children?

Here are some possible scenarios:

— Families have a parent who primarily works out of the home. There is an adjustment to having children at home more and potentially helping actively manage schoolwork.

— Families have jobs that allow flexibility. The rise of “working at home” during the pandemic means that parents who have jobs which can be done remotely are able to create a schedule to be home when their children are home.

— Families have created pods with other families. Shared child care has long been a solution for parents who work outside of the home, and those with robust social networks have created groups where their children can be together when not in school.

— Families have relatives nearby who can help. Those who have not moved away from relatives often rely on family members to help with child care and support.

— Families have dropped out of the workforce.

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— Families leave older siblings in charge of younger siblings. Older children may be able to supervise younger children allowing for some flexibility for working parents.

— Families leave children at home alone. Families who are not able to find solutions may end up leaving children home even if they are not developmentally ready for that.

The Child Care Counts Coalition of Windham County is collecting information from families about their experience balancing child care and work, and you can share your story via email to [email protected] or via phone/text to 802-242-6799.

We have paid a lot of attention to successfully making sure our physical spaces and interactions are happening in ways to minimize the risk of spreading Covid in our community. Nevertheless, the rise of cases is concerning. Hopefully, we can push through our “pandemic fatigue” and recommit to getting back to the basics of mitigating transmission – wash hands, maintain distance, limit time in close contact, and wear a mask.

How are the children?

However, we are not as well-versed in how to protect against the repercussions of remote education and limited social contact. While virtual learning has been a gift for some students, it is not a platform that works well for everyone, particularly in the younger elementary grades where social-emotional development continues to be a primary goal of education as well as building the foundation of academic skills such as reading. Families are always part of children’s education, but in our current education system, they were not meant to be their primary teacher, particularly when they already have another job. Many parents end up feeling like they are unable to do anything well – be a parent, be a teacher, and be an employee. This is on top of an already stressful environment of unknowns. Increased family stress impacts children, and they may not be able to understand that it is not their fault if their parents seem angry or frustrated. The parent-child relationship can suffer greatly in these circumstances which may have long-term implications we cannot begin to anticipate.

Articles have appeared about the increase in families seeking mental health services during the pandemic. This indicates an awareness and concern about what the effects will be on children long term, as well as an effort to seek assistance to anticipate and address these impacts. But, solutions to isolation and a lack of socialization opportunities are not going to be found in some of the typical mental health modalities. Child care settings and schools are a primary place for children to interact with each other and develop essential social skills, and there is not an obvious replacement. While child care has been open, schools are facing more challenges for a variety of reasons. It is worth considering how the success of child care might translate, particularly in the younger grades.

We need to balance physical and emotional health as we continue to face the threat of Covid. And, we need to figure out ways to be flexible and responsive in the face of the changing data regarding disease spread if we are going to mitigate the negative emotional impact of this pandemic. Even when we get a vaccine, we will continue seeing the impact of Covid in ways we cannot yet know. We do know the virus will be with us for a long time and it is essential for us to look for opportunities to support development and growth, think outside of our boxes about education, and understand that sacrificing emotional health at all costs may not be worth the price we will end up paying.


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