The End-of-Summer Child Care Crunch Is Here. I’m Not Amused.

Finding child care to last the entire summer has long been a problem for parents of young kids. In 2019, the Center for American Progress polled around 1,000 parents of children under 13 and found that three in four had “at least some difficulty” finding care, with more than half saying it was cost prohibitive, and nearly a quarter saying they couldn’t find programs to last the whole summer.

I’m one of the parents who couldn’t find enough care to last the duration. As I write this, my kids are still home and won’t return to school until Sept. 8, after 10-ish weeks of break. In previous years, I was always able to cobble something together, combining vacation, babysitters, grandparents and expensive camps (“expensive camps” may be a redundancy), to last the whole time.

Despite the many, many privileges my family has, including the fact that, in the first place, my husband and I both have paid vacation days, this year we just couldn’t get it together. We ran out of care options in the last week of August. The dates didn’t align, and the pandemic has scrambled some community programs that might at least help fill the long, hot dog days of summer. I’m sure I’m not alone. A new report released by CAP found that since February 2020, “the child care work force has lost 88,000 jobs, or 8.4 percent of its pre-pandemic workforce,” while “all private sector jobs and nonfarm employment have been recovered.”

Optimistically, or perhaps naïvely, I had hoped the pandemic had proven to Americans that if parents don’t have consistent school or care for their children, the effects on those children can be dire, both psychologically and academically. The effects on family finances when child care is inconsistent aren’t great either. I thought there would be more political energy behind fixing some fixable problems that have affected families for decades.

While I try to remain hopeful, that optimism took a hit recently when I heard from Katherine Goldstein, a North Carolina mom and the creator of The Double Shift newsletter and community, which is centered around challenging family norms. Goldstein, a former colleague of mine, told me that in her state, parents and educators tried to start the school year earlier in the fall of 2021 to help ameliorate pandemic learning losses, but the state’s tourism industry, which argued for the later start in the first place, successfully fought against it.

This fight predates Covid. According to T. Keung Hui, a reporter who has been covering K-12 education for The Raleigh News & Observer for years, described how the North Carolina school calendar law has been controversial since its passage in 2004. The law, which was supported by the tourism industry and some parents, states that schools “can start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11,” though there are some exemptions across the state in normal years, and there was a statewide exemption in 2020.

Goldstein, who lives in Durham, told me that part of the problem with the law was a mismatch with the calendars of the local colleges and universities, which provide a lot of the summer camp and child care labor force. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example, started on Aug. 15, while Chapel Hill and Durham public schools didn’t start until Aug. 29.

Parents who are employed by U.N.C. — not just professors but staff as well — probably aren’t able to take vacation for those last two weeks of August, but for many, child care alternatives have likely dried up, leaving them in the lurch. A significant number of North Carolinians work for the U.N.C. system; according to Carolina Demography, “The state is the largest overall employer in North Carolina with over 82,000 public employees as of November 2019; over a quarter (27 percent) of them work for the University of North Carolina system alone.”

In August, Ann Doss Helms reported for Charlotte’s NPR affiliate, WFAE, that the executive director of the North Carolina Travel Industry Association “describes the school calendar law as a tool for protecting summer vacations, as well as the people whose livelihoods depend on summer trips to beaches, mountains and other attractions.” I can’t help but wonder, though: Don’t at least some people who work at the beaches, mountains and other attractions have children, too? If school isn’t in session at the end of August, aren’t they in the same child care crunch that university employees face?

According to Helms’s reporting, some counties simply defied the law in 2022, because educators want high schoolers in particular to have a more balanced school year, instead of a much shorter fall semester that ends after winter break. Starting earlier puts these high schools more in line with the community college schedule, which is important because “an increasing number of students” in North Carolina high schools also take community college classes. Helms noted that the state superintendent of public instruction, Catherine Truitt, has said she thinks that the push to keep the law in place has very little to do with education, and that districts should have flexibility in their school start dates.

But those who support the calendar law suggest that’s a slippery slope, and that without the law, schools would keep ending later and starting earlier. I find that hard to believe, since funding to keep public schools open longer is not an endless resource. I doubt the total number of instructional days will increase significantly, even if schools are given more flexibility on start and end dates. And given the rising temperatures around the country, I’m guessing that the beaches and mountains of North Carolina could do some pretty swift business in June instead of August.

I know that North Carolina is just one state — but its example shows how difficult it is to make even incremental changes that many parents and educators would welcome, and have been fighting for. All they’re asking for is flexibility and more local control, which shouldn’t be so hard to come by. I often think about a point that the writer Katha Pollitt made in 2019, when she argued in these pages for day care for all: maybe there isn’t enough political energy behind care issues because the people who need it the most are just so tired.

Even so, I’m moderately hopeful about the long-term picture. After all, in 2019, the state of Virginia repealed a similar school calendar law that was colloquially known as the “Kings Dominion law.” That law required schools to start after Labor Day because of lobbying from amusement parks “like Kings Dominion that believed they would benefit from extra time in August with families taking vacations and teenagers available to work their summer jobs,” Max Smith reported for WTOP News. If Virginia made this change, North Carolina could too. I constantly question why, in America, we make it so hard to parent and to make ends meet. In some ways, an amusement park’s ability to sway a decision about when school begins says everything you need to know about how much we value children and education in our country.

Here in New York, I keep telling myself it’s less than two weeks. And we’re used to working while our kids are around — we’ve been doing it more than we ever anticipated since March 2020. We’re thankful we have jobs that allowed us to work remotely during the height of the pandemic, and most of the time it’s a delight to have the kids around all day, even if we don’t have time to referee arguments about what they’ll watch next, “Floor Is Lava” or “Lizzie McGuire.” But, like you, we’re exhausted, and limping into the school year. It’s hardly the endless, glossy summer the tourism boards are selling.

Want More?

  • In her Double Shift newsletter, Goldstein calls for a radical rethink of public schooling, including a major change in the way the school day and year are structured.

  • Axios notes that more women, particularly Black and Hispanic women and those without college degrees, are now self-employed. “The likely explanation here is not simply an explosion of entrepreneurship, but also a reaction to the child care worker shortage. Mothers are scrambling to care for children at home and still earn money,” Emily Peck and Matt Phillips explain.

  • In 2016, The Atlantic asked several education experts how much time they thought America’s school children should be spending in class. Here’s what they had to say.

  • Why is the American school year structured the way it is? “History tells us the reasons that school systems used only a 10-month calendar were due to agrarian needs, but in recent years this rationale does not seem as applicable,” according to a 2012 paper by James Pedersen from the Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education.

  • In 2018 for The Times, Francesca Donner asked parents how they were “solving summer” and found that “whatever the solution, almost every respondent worried over the problem. The summer months caused no end of stress over the workdays missed, vacation days used, money meted out. This was far from easy whether parents worked full-time or not.”

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

I recently took my two elementary-age kids on vacation and decided to let them call the shots about what they wanted to do. I noticed that by listening to them more, they listened to me more, and we really enjoyed our time together.

— Melissa Coleman, Santa Rosa, Calif.

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