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U.S. child care closures during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Emma Lee (Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University) and Zachary Parolin (Bocconi University in Milan and Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University)

In April 2020, the first major peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., 70 percent of child care centers were closed or at reduced capacity, we found in a recent study. Child care reduces the care burden of parents, promotes child development, and creates employment opportunities. With the closure of child care centers across the U.S., parents struggled to balance work and family, children were at risk of falling behind developmentally, and there were likely hundreds of thousands of fewer available jobs.

Our study on child care closures during the COVID-19 pandemic uses aggregated, anonymized, mobile-phone tracking data of more than 40 million individuals provided by SafeGraph. We identify a child care center as closed or at reduced capacity if it experienced a decline in in-person attendance of at least 50 percent relative to the same month in 2019.

Though 70 percent of child care centers were closed or at reduced capacity in April 2020, this rate dropped to just above 30 percent in July and August 2020. However, the rate gradually rose again to 44 percent in December 2020, and lowered to 35 percent by April 2021, a year after the first peak of the pandemic.

Our findings also show that a disproportionate share of Asian, Latino, and Black families have been affected by child care closures over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. From March 2020 onward, families of color have been affected by child care closures at rates higher than the national average, while White families have been affected at rates below the national average.

We also find child care closure disparities related to the highest level of education, median income, and population density of the census tract in which a child care center is located. Child care centers located in tracts with a greater share of individuals with a college degree, higher median income, and greater population density exhibit larger rates of closure.

Lastly, our research shows significant geographic variation in the closure of child care centers across U.S. counties from April 2020 to April 2021. The west and northeastern coasts of the U.S. experience the highest rates of child care closure, while the middle of the U.S. experiences fewer overall closures. There remain scattered areas throughout the Midwest, generally within major cities, that experience 40 percent or greater closure rates. Some states, such as Hawaii, Wyoming, and Maine, meanwhile, experience relatively low closure rates, with all associated counties having less than 50 percent closure.

Although considered necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, child care closures have likely contributed to increased stress and unemployment among parents, especially for mothers. Moreover, closures may result in lower-quality care provided to children and the permanent closure of many essential child care facilities. The demographic, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities in child care closure risk the widening of preexisting disparities in access to the limited supply of child care services in the U.S.

With the new Omicron variant, rise in COVID-19 cases across the country, and resultant transition to online learning for many schools, it is possible that many child care centers will be returning to closed doors.

To spur further investigation of this topic, we provide researchers access to our database of child care center closures. This database features monthly updated closure rates (from January 2020 to present) of more than 80,000 child care centers across the country, aggregated up to the levels of census tract, county, and state.

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