California Parent Poll: COVID-19 and Early Childhood

Poll Results Show Coronavirus Crisis Puts Parents’ and Young Children’s Well-being at Risk

California’s parents of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are experiencing intense financial insecurity during this time. Unemployment and temporary loss of work are affecting 19% of parents of young children in California. Even among employed parents, more than a third (37%) have had their hours or pay reduced or have taken time off work to care for their child or children as a result of the crisis, and seven in ten (71%) say they worry about losing their jobs or having their hours reduced in the future. More than half (53%) of parents overall say they feel “uneasy” about their own personal finances, and more than a third (39%) aren’t confident they’ll be able to pay for basic expenses like food, housing, and healthcare if the crisis isn’t resolved in the next two months.

As a result of the crisis, parents are skipping or reducing their family’s meals. Parents aren’t just worrying about money – they’re changing their behavior to compensate for a lack of steady income, fears of future financial instability, and food availability (including formula). Over a third of parents (36%) say they have skipped or reduced the size of their own meals as a result of the coronavirus crisis, and that number increases significantly among new parents with a child 1-6 months old (47%), parents whose children who have been enrolled in Early Intervention (45%) and Early Head Start (44%), parents earning <$24,000 per year (58%), Latinx parents (43%), unemployed parents (43%), and parents in Los Angeles (41%). Overall, 12% of parents have skipped or reduced the size of the meals they provide for their children, which disproportionately affects single parents (28%), parents with children enrolled in an Early Intervention (26%) and Early Head Start (22%), those located in Los Angeles (19%), and non-English speakers (19%).

For many California families, the coronavirus crisis has been incredibly disruptive and put parents’ and young children’s well-being at risk. Most parents (74%) say the coronavirus crisis has significantly disrupted their home and family lives (particularly in the Greater Los Angeles area: 79%) and many worry about their own and their family’s mental health as a result of the coronavirus crisis (73%). Three in four parents (72%) worry their child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development will suffer as a result of the coronavirus crisis, while another three in four (77%) report their own levels of stress are higher than usual during this time. Nearly one out of four parents of young children (23%) worry about the impact of substance abuse and domestic violence on their family as a result of the coronavirus crisis–worries about abuse are particularly widespread among single parents (36%), parents of children with disabilities (33%), and non-English speakers (31%).

The coronavirus crisis has significantly changed parents’ childcare arrangements and other parenting supports. Before coronavirus, over a fifth (22%) of families relied on home or center-based child care and 38% had at least one parent staying home to care for their child. Now, just 7% say their child care/daycare program is still open and they are still attending, and 83% have at least one parent at home. In addition to the added burden of balancing working remotely with tending to their child/children (63% of parents say they are now working from home), parents are also disconnected from their usual support system. Almost two thirds (61%) of parents typically rely on friends and family to help care for their child, which is unworkable for many parents while social distancing restrictions remain in place. Parents whose children participate in assistance programs like Early Head Start, Early Intervention, and home visitation programs have also experienced significant disruptions, with 34% reporting not receiving services during the crisis.

The current crisis has introduced a lot of uncertainty about childcare for many parents of young children in California. Just 64% of parents say they plan to return to the child care arrangements they had prior to the coronavirus crisis –12% say they do not plan to return and 24% are unsure what they will do when the crisis is over. The uncertainty of child care cuts across all types of pre-pandemic arrangements, and this is particularly true for families located in small towns/rural areas of the state (47%unsure/won’t return) and families with a household income lower than $50,000/year (46%) are potentially unable to afford their existing care if their financial situation worsens.

Essential workers are unsure of their ability to access child care. Among essential workers (who make up 26% of parents of young children polled in the state), there is also uncertainty about what they can access: 42% are unsure whether they are eligible for childcare for essential workers or were not aware this was available. Just 7% of essential workers say their child is receiving child care and 20% indicate that they are eligible but do not wish to use child care for the time being. (These questions were asked after Governor Newsom had signed an Executive Order prioritizing the children of essential workers for child care, and allocating $100 million).

Government support can help struggling parents in California. We tested an extensive list of potential supports for parents and young children and found parents receptive to all of the options that were proposed. As governments at the federal, state, and local levels look to understand and mitigate the sizeable negative impact of coronavirus on California’s families, policymakers and other advocates should look to close the below gaps between the things that parents think would be helpful to them in navigating the crisis (in light blue below) and the things they currently have access to now (in dark blue below). And this should extend beyond the current crisis as well: nearly all parents of young children (95%) say they support investing more public funds in expanding access to quality, affordable childcare, and preschool for families with young children in the state, including well over a majority (61%) who say they strongly support greater investment.

Some –but not all – parents have been in a position to make the most out of this time with their child, though more time at home has come at the expense of more screen time for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. While many parents report they have been able to spend more quality time with their child as a result of the changes to their routine and child care arrangements (79%, driven by furloughed (95%) and unemployed parents (84%), parents also report that their child spends more time using devices like tablets (70%) and watching TV (69%). Many parents say they spend more time playing games with their infant/toddler/preschooler (73%), cooking together (64%), doing arts and crafts (62%), reading (61%), and to a lesser extent exercising (42%) and playing outdoors (40%). Additional ideas for creative activities that can be done indoors, strategies for communicating with young children about what they are seeing on the news and online, and other ways to engage children offline can help parents as they navigate this new reality.


Key Areas of Need Moving Forward

Based on the results of this poll, we have identified the following areas where we feel policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels should focus their efforts to further assist California parents:

  • Financial assistance. As noted above, many parents have been laid off work, furloughed, or temporarily had their hours or pay reduced as a result of the coronavirus, and well over half (61%) say they worry about not being able to afford basic expenses like food, health care, and housing for their families if the current crisis continues. Financial assistance for parents of young children during this period, beyond what many families have already been able to access through state unemployment insurance and federal stimulus payments, is a key area where Californiafamilies could benefit from additional support.
  • Food security. One clear manifestation of financial instability is parents’ ability to feed themselves and their families. In less than two months, this has already translated to greater food insecurity among significant proportions of parents. Families in Los Angeles, single parents, Latinx parents, and parents whose children have been enrolled in Early Intervention and Head Start programs are disproportionately more likely to report making the difficult decision to skip or reduce their family’s meals and particularly need additional support.
  • Access to health and wellness professionals through telehealth technology. A third of parents (30%) say they have missed health appointments for their child due to coronavirus. Further, nearly all parents (94%)would like to access their child’s doctor using telehealth, but less than a fifth(18%) are currently able to do so. In addition, it is a significant problem that many families are not receiving the Early Intervention and home visitation services that they need. All of these issues are compounded by the lack of access to technology and the digital divide.
  • Support for parents and families in crisis. Accessing support to deal with issues such as addiction and abuse that may arise or be exacerbated as a result of the state’s shelter-in-place order is another critical service that could be made more widely available for parents who need it.
  • Web-based supports and resources. Many community-based organizations, libraries, museums, child care providers, and other entities are providing virtual tools and resources that families are using. More tools (and outreach to advertise them) like free online resources, developmental programming such as virtual storytime, resources that can help with food, housing, employment, health, and other emergency needs, and connections to other parents are all widely viewed as helpful among parents. Guidance on how to access and use these resources as well as strategies for structuring time at home with their children is also critical.
  • Greater investment in early childhood programming moving forward. As noted above, support for expanding access to quality, affordable child care, and preschool for California families with young children is incredibly high among parents of young children at 95%. As the state recovers from the devastating impact of the crisis and looks to reimagine the role of government in supporting Californians, 87% of parents of young children also agree that the state should be doing more to ensure infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in California are healthy and developmentally on track at birth and throughout early childhood.

This poll was released in partnership with:

About this poll:

Global Strategy Group partnered with The Education Trust–West, The Children’s Partnership, The District Innovation and Leadership for Early Education Initiative, Early Edge California, and Child360 to conduct this poll.

This poll surveyed 600 California parents of children ages 0-5 about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The poll had a confidence interval of +/-4.0%. All interviews were conducted via a web-based panel, including 62% of interviews conducted via mobile device. Care has been taken to ensure the geographic and demographic divisions of parents of young children in California are properly represented.

For more education equity-centered resources and responses, click here.