Childcare in the time of Covid-19: the ambivalence of finally getting rid of your kids again

Getting rid of
your kids again

9 min read
Foto: Unsplash/ Kelly Sikkema

It should not feel so wrong to drop off your child in school. Mama, my daughter shouts in the afternoon as she runs towards me in the schoolyard, covered in dust from the playground and paint from the poster she was painting when I came. It used to be my favourite moment of the day, picking up the kids, hungry and sticky and all played out. Now I have a knot in my stomach when I think about them while they are in their institutions. My children are seven and four years old; I’m a single mother with a full-time job as lecturer at a university.

As one of the first countries in Europe, on 15 April 2020 Denmark has re-opened child-care institutions and primary school classes (year 0-5); just over four weeks after the lockdown was announced on 11 March. Many shops have remained open throughout the lockdown, and even as public institutions and restaurants have been closed, people were allowed to leave their homes, whenever they wanted. Travel restrictions are still in place across the borders. As I’m writing this, 285 people are hospitalised, 70 of them in Intensive Care Units. 422 people have died of Covid-19 in Denmark so far. Denmark has successfully flattened the curve, they say. The Danish government based the first phase of re-opening on being ’pragmatic, realistic and responsible.’ As the prime minister Mette Frederiksen stated, opening daycare institutions and schools means that ’parents have more time to work at home. That’s what you need. That’s what we all need. Because tasks are queuing up’. And oh, how much work is piling up. In the government’s statement, there is no explicit rationale highlighting the needs of children, though.  

There is much international attention and scrutiny of the schools opening up. How do you feel about dropping them off, my sister asks, living in Germany with three children under the age of eight. While there has been some discussion in Germany about allowing school pupils in their final years to go back to school to finish their school certificates, kindergarden, nurseries and primary schools are largely absent from any public policy debates. Demands to open up more and more parts of the economy are getting louder, though. As if the workers in this ’economy’ have grown on a tree and exist without the complex web of social reproduction that renders possible any form of economic production.

In Denmark, many parents are concerned. In public discussions there is much debate of, and resistance to, letting children go back to their institutions. There is not much statistical data; do children spread the virus while they themselves are mainly asymptomatic? What happens to children with parents in risk groups? Will my child die of Covid-19 if I send it back to its institution? The Statens Serum Institute tries to disseminate facts. So far, 2.6 per cent of all confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Denmark have been children, around half of them teenagers. The Facebook group ’My child should not be a guinea pig for Covid-19’ has 40.000 members in a few days. Many newspapers write about the Facebook group, but overall, it seems that people are indeed sending their children back. In my daughter’s school, student attendance was at 80% in the first week of the re-opening phase, and is now up to 89%.

Schools are under strict regulations from the Danish Health Authority to ensure hygiene and distancing measures. Drop off/pick up times are staggered, to avoid too many people being at the gate at the same time. Parents are not allowed to enter the school yard; there are teachers greeting the kids when they come through the gate, to remind them to wash/disinfect their hands. On the way back to the car, I meet other parent’s eyes with a feeling of uncertainty and resolve. Det skal nok gå. It’ll be ok. Right? Right?

Implementing the regulations is challenging for childcare institutions and schools. The national associations of daycare institutions are sounding the alam bell. Many buildings are simply not big enough to facilitate dividing the kids into small enough groups, to restructure furniture set-up, guarantee access to sanitary facilities. Playground space is limited. There is not enough staff to supervise the small group sizes necessary to comply with the regulations. In Copenhagen municipality, only 16.000 out of the regular 34.000 childcare places can be made available in the first week. There is a frantic search for urban space for the kids, in museums, public spaces; even Tivoli, the amusement park in the middle of Copenhagen city centre, offers space for groups of children.

"Run the water, run the water, put soap on, put soap on...." my daughter sings when she comes home. Wash your hands. Use disinfectant. Cough in your elbow. Don’t share food with others. Keep your distance from other kids. Don’t let Corona find you. Invocations of control that doesn’t exist quite as much as we hope.

The pressure on kindergarden and nursery staff, as well as teachers in primary schools, is significant. Many of them have kids themselves, of course, some might have pre-existing medical conditions, some are in the risk group simply because of their age. All of them have just been through the lockdown, too. In my daughter’s school, the teachers have sent exercises, short videos, responded to questions, provided encouragement, joined a Zoom call with the kids. Now, even with teaching assistants in the class, the level of supervision they have to provide for the children is unprecedented. Do they get recognition and compensation for their efforts?

Fortunately, the weather is beautiful and warm; the groups go to the park a lot. Should it start to rain, the kids will put their rain gear on and stay outside. In the Nordic countries, there is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes. But don’t get a cold. Don’t sniffle, don’t cough. On the slightest suspicion that they’re not feeling well we will send your child home, the school writes. There is an update – would parents of children with allergies please alert the teachers, so that children don’t have to argue with them about whether they can be sent home. The teachers send messages how lovely it is to see smiling faces in school again. I remind myself not to romanticise them. Teachers, as much as they might identify with their jobs, are wage earners; if they had a choice not to sell their labour power, would they still put themselves in a class of children? When (or if?) restrictions have been lifted, will we remember to stand with teachers (childcare workers, health care workers, cleaners, supermarket staff, all critical infrastructural workers who have been so invisible before) in the next negotiations of wages and working conditions? In 2013, around 90.000 teachers in Denmark were locked out of their schools during an industrial dispute between their unions and the government/their municipalities. What is going to happen over the next years, when the magnitude of public expenditure during the crisis becomes clear, and cuts in welfare spending will be announced?

I bring chocolate for the kindergarden staff after the first couple of days. The kids in my son’s group have managed well, all things considered. Are we in prison now? was one of their reactions to the fences that partition off their part of the playground. After two days, my son refuses to go. It’s different there, he says. I don’t want to go to kindergarden any more. I want to stay with you. I waver. I could take him home again, let him watch something on the tablet while I do my online teaching. That’s how we got through the lockdown; Paw Patrol, My Little Pony, and me handing sweets to the kids during Zoom sessions. With bribes of ice-cream in the afternoon, and help from a kind staff member I shove him through the gate anyway, him crying and me close to tears. I’m causing traumatic damage to my son’s psyche in times of a global pandemic. And for what – so that I can go talk to my students, many of whom are also traumatised by weeks of uncertainty, illness, boredom, loss of income? Two minutes afterwards my phone beeps. It’s the kindergarden, sending me a picture of him playing happily. I sit in the car and cry. Of course he should be in kindergarden, with kids his age. He spends all day outside; they’ve put up portable toilets, and a tent against the sun. There is music and dancing across the groups of small humans, smothered in sun lotion. It’s like Roskilde festival, the staff joke. We even have potent alcohol going around, pointing at the disinfectant.

I ask my daughter how her day was. She’s learned the difference between translucent and transparent today. Her teacher manages to keep engaging those bright, happy minds even in these uncertain times. How she does that I don’t know; in my online classes I tend to wander off into streams of consciousness, and the students can’t tell me off because I have muted them. During the lockdown I’ve tried to supervise my daughter’s homework, to much frustration on both sides. I’m even more in awe of the professional ease with which the teacher brings the kids back to learning their material. The kids’ class is split up into smaller groups. They have spent their first 1 ½ years at school learning how to work together, sitting in small clusters; now they have to keep a distance that feels alien to them. So are you also having fun at school, I want to know, or is it all just rules and discipline now. She grins cheekily. When the teacher doesn’t look, her friend sometimes runs over to her desk and they touch hands. Her friend’s father said that corona doesn’t make you more ill than just a cold, so how bad can it be? Her friend’s father also lets her friend bring toys to the school. Can she now bring her toy, too? I want to explain to her just what I would like to tell her friend’s father, but I don’t want to swear in front of her.

I speak to the family therapist in the local municipal family centre. He says most of the families he is working with are crawling up the walls. Many of them have been cooped up in small flats, with rising unemployment, uncertainty, physical and psychological violence.  In the week after the lockdown, calls to the crisis centres in Denmark doubled. The government has decided to open up 55 new crisis centre places for women and children. Now that the institutions are open again, does this mean that the situation will relax again? Employers know that institutions are open again. Whose job counts more now, if decisions have to be taken? Who will stay at home with the coughing child? Who will do the early pick-up for a child that can’t quite settle into the changed, and limited context of their institution?

It must feel good, to be able to work in peace and quiet, now that you have childcare again, a colleague tells me. I manage an ambivalent smirk. Feminist groups are highlighting the urgency of a gendered perspective on public policy responses to the corona crisis; we need to listen to them! Acknowledging the feelings of helplessness and fear that come with childcare in the crisis should be an organic part of such a response; as first step towards turning them into solidaristic and collective action.