Childcare in the time of COVID-19

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There’s no question—having kids can be expensive. And one of the biggest expenses is childcare, which can be one of the biggest—if not the biggest—monthly expenses for many households. But it’s also a necessary expense for many families.

Not everyone is able to stay home to look after their kids. For households with two parents, it’s often necessary for both to work. For single-parent households, things get even more complicated as it’s essential to balance work and home responsibilities solo.

And then there’s the added complexities of COVID-19. As the initial shelter-in-place orders were announced, parents across Atlantic Canada were forced into a situation where childcare was no longer available. Schools and daycares were closed. After school programs were non-existent. And even inviting a babysitter into your home was strongly discouraged.

For those who were fortunate enough to work from home, life became a balancing act between virtual meetings and keeping the kids occupied—often while feeling like both sides could use a little extra attention. But for those who still had to work outside of the home, things became complicated at best, and impossible at worst.

Now, while back-to-school plans are slowly being released, the amount of uncertainty associated with what the school year will look like has made an already challenging situation even harder to predict.

If you’re lucky enough to still be working, how do you balance childcare with working from home? If you can’t work from home, who’s watching the kids while you’re at work? If, like thousands of Atlantic Canadians, you lost your job, how do you continue to provide for your family? These questions have kept many parents up at night.

“It's been hard. Since March, when our offices and daycare shut down, my partner and I have been home with our two children trying to manage a full work schedule each, as well as wrangle, distract, entertain, engage, educate, and generally occupy our babes,” says Trina, a mother of two.

“Typically, I’d start my workday super early while my partner looked after the kids, then we’d switch in the afternoon and both pick up the slack in the evening after bedtime. It was exhausting and filled with a light feeling of failure on all fronts,” says Trina.

While daycares have re-opened, many are operating at a reduced capacity and many are struggling with new rules and regulations. Have you ever tried to socially distance a group of toddlers? It’s pretty much impossible.

“When the initial bubble family announcement came, we hired an amazing and energetic babysitter for three and a half days a week, continuing to balance care ourselves the other days,” says Jill, a mother a two.

“This was great, especially because we wanted to take a "wait and see" approach with how daycares and their new protocols would work out. Now that we’ve had a chance to see what that’s looking like, we're planning to put both kids back in daycare and refocus on our careers. We’re hoping for a bit less chaos around the house and a more predictable schedule for August and into the fall,” says Jill.

While many families had to adjust and adapt on the fly, it’s not always been easy, and it has come at a cost.

“My partner ended up being laid off not long after the state of emergency was declared, which ended up working well for our situation. He was able to look after the kids more regularly, while I could devote more of my day to work. But it meant we had to have a serious review of our finances. And when our daycare announced it would be reopening, it gave us a lot to think about—how safe did we feel with the new protocols in place? How would we balance the cost of two in daycare with a single income?” says Trina.

While summer means school’s out anyway, September is not far off, which means parents might once again be faced with some tough decisions.

What happens when school is done for the day but the workday isn’t? There’s also the question of sick days—cold and flu season is challenging enough for parents, but the seriousness of the coronavirus means that many schools and workplaces will have a zero-tolerance policy for anybody showing any signs of illness—COVID-19 or otherwise. That will put a strain on families who don’t have unlimited sick days or the ability to work from home when needed.

It’s easy to talk about planning ahead, but when the situation is so uncertain it can be even more challenging. But there are a few things you can do.

When it comes to childcare—or any expense—having a solid budget is crucial. By knowing your financial situation, you can be more informed about how your decisions may impact your finances and vice versa.

While the future may be uncertain, you can start to think of a contingency plan. That could mean thinking outside of the box when it comes to your childcare situation.

Hiring a nanny or childcare provider might not be in the budget, but could you pool resources with a trusted friend, neighbour, or family member and hire someone together? Likewise, could a friend, neighbour, or family member pitch in for childcare when needed? Start to have conversations now and review your options—as anybody who experienced the sudden loss of childcare in March can attest, the surprise of a new way of doing things was almost as tough as the change itself.

It's also a good time to have an honest conversation with your employer and understand what your options are. Thing like working flexible hours, working from home, or taking more than sick days than you may have allocated might have to be part of the equation.

And if you need some help with the financial planning side of things, your local credit union can help.