Something’s Gotta Give

Parents face an untenable set of demands as schools and child care providers begin a new academic year.

UOregon CTN
Sep 8, 2020 · 10 min read

Key Findings

This week we looked at how parents and other caregivers are managing the competing obligations of work, childcare, and distance learning for their older children as we go into the 2020 school year mid-pandemic.

These issues are exacerbated by the disconnections that have long existed in this country between early childhood care and primary education.


In March 2020, as the pandemic began to take hold, distance learning was a new concept for most parents. Instead of school classrooms, caregivers suddenly had to facilitate children’s academic learning from home, which created additonal stress in the household.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into fall 2020, parents are facing new challenges, as many schools across the country plan to be partially or fully remote. And, this time, remote learning shows no signs of being temporary.

After generally negative reports on the outcome of last spring’s efforts to implement online education, teachers and administrators have spent the summer developing novel approaches to improve and diversify distance learning.

These efforts may result in more enriching educational opportunities for students, but they also place parents in an increasingly difficult position.

Caregivers are responsible for both:

The situation is all the more challenging for caregivers without access to adequate techology, either because it is not available where they live or because they can’t afford it.

In households with both preschool-aged children and older school-aged children, the situation is even more challenging.

These parents are suddenly expected to be full-time care providers for their younger children, full-time teacher’s assistants and classroom managers for their older children, and—in their spare time—full-time employees at their “day jobs” so that they can support their families’ basic needs.

In past weeks we have documented a direct relationship between caregiver and child distress. The start of the school year will only add more stress on household, with potential impacts on lifelong health and wellbeing both for children and caregivers.


This week, we looked at what families are facing in fall 2020 as distance learning becomes the new norm for much of the nation. While the RAPID survey focuses on households with young children aged 0 to 5, this week we took a closer look at the families in our survey who also have an older, school-age child in addition to a younger child (461 families total), which is just under half of the total families in this week’s survey.

We asked caregivers what their local school districts had planned for fall 2020 — will learning be inperson, fully remote, a hybrid of both? Then we asked who in the household would be responsible for managing the remote aspects of their children’s schooling.

Since all the families in our survey also have a child aged 0 to 5, we also asked caregivers who would be caring for their younger children while older children are doing their distance learning. Then we asked what are they doing to entertain and support learning for these younger children — online activities, screen time?

For each of these questions, we looked at families overall as well subgroups of households based on race, income, and single-parent status.

Notably, for all of the results reported, we looked to see if there were any differences based on whether caregivers were employed or unemployed. We found that, regardless of employment status the results were the same.


Most families with school-age children will have to balance distance learning and other obligations.

Schools will be partially or completely online during the fall of 2020 for most of the families in our survey that have school-age children. This means that most caregivers will be expected to support some amount of at-home learning for their school-age children during weekdays — either fully online or a hybrid of online and in-person instruction.

Fully remote learning was the most common option across all families in our survey. Black, Latinx, and single parent households will bear an even bigger burden. Approximately half of these families have children in fully remote schools. Less than a third of white families face similar conditions.

Parents are taking on the extra task of supervising school-age children and supporting distance learning.

Overall, 80% of caregivers in our survey reported that a parent will manage distance learning.

This percentage remained high when we looked at different subgroups.

Among Black and Latinx households, parents were even more likely to be bearing the burden of managing their children’s distance learning (84% and 87% of caregivers in these households reported it the parent managing their child’s learning).

In some families, grandparents were significantly more likely to be the managers of remote schooling. The rate of grandparents managing remote learning in Black and single parent households was close to 25%. However, even in these households parents will still carry most of the distance learning burden.

Parents will simultaneously be caring for younger children who are not yet in school.

Since all households in our survey have young children, we asked caregivers who would be helping care for their younger children aged 0 to 5 while all this distance learning in happening this fall.

Parents are the primary caregivers for their younger children, despite also being the primary managers of their school-aged children’s remote learning AND in many cases the primary income-earners for their families.

While there were some significant differences across types of households, the vast majority of parents in our survey — approximately 90% — reported that they will be caring for their young children all day despite their other obligations.

In Latinx and low-income households, rates of parents caring for younger children were particularly high — between 90% and 100%.

Grandparents were significantly more likely to be assisting with care of younger children in single-parent households — close to 40% of caregivers in these households reported that grandparents will be helping out.

Parents with school-aged children are managing their older child’s distance learning and caring for their younger children at the same time.

Parents are caring for their younger, non-school aged children through activities at home or screen time.

Approximately 80% of parents said that they did in-person games and activities with their young child and approximately 60% said their children watched shows or engaged with online apps.

Very few parents — only about 20% — used any type of entertainment or childcare that came from outside the home such as live activities or daycare.


The demands placed on caregivers this fall are becoming increasingly untenable. We know from the early months of the pandemic how difficult it was for parents to have young children at home while also working remotely. For caregivers who worked essential jobs outside of the home, many had no choice but to go part-time or give up their jobs completely as childcare options diminished.

Now going into fall, caregivers are facing these same dilemmas and also managing distance learning for their older children.

Many parents managed to get through last spring when the situation was still expected to be short-lived. In contrast, remote learning this fall has no signs of ending. We know from this week’s data that parents are not outsourcing these increasing demands.

Contrary to reports in the media, the vast majority of parents in our survey are not sending their children to “pandemic pods” or hiring tutors or sending their children to a babysitter or relative’s house.

Rather, most parents are staying home and doing it all — working, caring for young children, and managing remote learning for their school-age children. Whether they are doing so out of preference, out of concerns about safety, or due to a lack of other options is not clear from our data.

Nevertheless, since distance learning is required, it will inevitably force its way to the top of parents’ priority lists, and younger children with no educational requirements will likely get lost in the shuffle. It may be all parents can do to plug them into Sesame Street and keep them safe and fed.

Something’s got to give.

If parents don’t find relief, their work, their older children’s education, and younger children’s well-being are all going to suffer and will likely continue to decline as the Covid-19 pandemic carries on. Extensive existing research shows that the impacts of this amount of stress on households is not temporary.

Without immediate action to alleviate stress on families, family health and well-being might suffer for the long term, even after the virus is under control. This is not just a family concern, this amount of stress is bearing down on our future workforce, leaders, and fellow community members.


Control and contain the spread of Covid-19.

Until policy makers take actions to ensure that pandemic is brought under control through effective public health measures and the cooperation of the general public, the untenable burden being borne by parents and other primary caregivers is likely to continue.

In the absence of a comprehensive plan to end the pandemic, focusing on whether or not to re-open schools or whether child care is safe is unlikely to be productive. As noted in a recent article in Nature, there simply will be no way for schools to re-open safely until this occurs.

Similarly, parents will be unable to work outside of the home without risking infection, and doubts will continue about the safety of sending younger children childcare.

Enact financial relief for households with young children.

It will take many months to bring the pandemic under control even under the best of circumstances. Worries about paying for basic needs such as food, fears of eviction, and worries about utilities being disconnected are affecting millions of households with young children since the CARES Act expired in late July. It is difficult to imagine how parents can support the academic and social-emotional needs of their children under such dire circumstances.

Integrate systems for childcare and primary education at the national, state and local levels.

Childcare cannot be considered — as it is by many — as mere babysitting. It must be acknowledged as both care and early childhood education.

In short, both systems must come to be viewed by policymakers and the general public as providing the same essential supports to families along a developmental continuum from infancy through childhood.

During the pandemic, and beyond, the re-envisioning confluence of education and care across the span of infancy and childhood will lessen the burden on families having to navigate these systems separately for different age-children.

Enact federal legislation to strengthen our national system of childcare.

Policymakers must address the structural inequalities in this system that lead the largely female and Black/Brown workforce undercompensated for the essential work they do.

Similarly, access to quality childcare must become the norm for all American households.

In particular, both during and after the pandemic, policies to support paid family leave for parents and other caregivers of young children would help to alleviate some of the major stressors on families.

Additional Readings

The Results Are in for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work,” Wall Street Journal.

Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain,” Center for the Developing Child.

How Schools Can Reopen Safely During the Pandemic,” Nature.

“‘I don’t know if I can do this’: Parents Brace for School Year Juggling Jobs, Remote Learning Amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” USA Today.

The Achievement Gap Is ‘More Glaring Than Ever’ for Students Dealing With School Closures,” Time.

The Pandemic Is Fueling the Private Tutoring Industry,” Vox.

Remote Learning Is Turning Out to Be a Burden for Parents,” New York Post.

How To Improve Remote Learning During The Covid-19 Pandemic,” Forbes.

A Working Parent’s Guide To Paid Family Leave In The Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” Forbes.

About the project

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last winter, there were over 24 million children age five and under living in the United States. This period of early childhood is a critical window that sets the stage for health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, it is essential during the current health and economic crisis to listen to the voices of households with young children.

The weekly survey of households with children age five and under launched on April 6, 2020. Since then, we have been gathering weekly data about child and adult emotional well-being, financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, and access to child care/early childhood education.

This week’s analyses are based on responses collected from 997 caregivers between the dates of August 25, 2020 and August 27, 2020. These caregivers represent a range of voices: 10.33% are Black/African American, 14.74% are LatinX, and 18.15% live at or below 1.5 times the federal poverty line. Proportions/percentages are calculated based on the item-level response rates, not out of the total sample size. The data for these analyses are not weighted.

We will continue to report on these issues as we learn more from each new weekly survey. We will also be producing policy briefs that make concrete recommendations about how to address the challenges we are seeing emerge from the family surveys.

Our goal is to use what we are hearing from families to improve the well-being of all households with young children, during the pandemic and beyond.

Suggested Citation

Center for Translational Neuroscience (2020, September 8). Something’s Gotta Give: Parents Face an Untenable Set of Demands as Schools and Child Care Providers Begin a New Academic Year. Medium.

RAPID-EC Project

Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey Project