Back-to-School During COVID-19: Child Care Options to Balance Finances and Education

Last Updated: 6/23/2021
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Back-to-school season is always hectic, but this year, thousands of parents are faced with deciding whether or not to send their children back to school and day care. The coronavirus pandemic has raised many questions for parents around the country about child care. Are schools closing for the pandemic? What are schools doing to keep my kids safe? Should I opt for virtual at-home learning instead? How much does virtual school cost?

It’s important to remember that every family situation is different, and what might work for your neighbor, in-laws, friends or fellow classmates might not work for your family. Fortunately, there are a few different and unique child care and education options from which to choose for families.

Preschool Children

A preschool child shows his hands with paint on them

Younger children can be more challenging to find care for, as they need constant attention and assistance. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 48% of working parents with a child under the age of 6 say their child attends day care or preschool while they are at work (45% rely on a family member to watch their children during the workday, while the remaining 16% hire a nanny or babysitter). Many parents are facing challenges finding affordable day care options for their children. Lockdowns, business closures, lost wages and overall concern for safety during the coronavirus pandemic have made things more challenging for families.

While some parents may financially prepare for child care before having a baby, the pandemic has likely impacted everyone’s plans. Consider the following options and the costs associated with different child care choices before deciding on a path for your kids.

Day Care

A toddler does a little dance while her caretaker claps

In many communities, day care is a luxury. The average cost of day care an infant is $1,230 per month in the United States.

  • Professional, high-quality education and care from a young age: A licensed day care center will only staff educated child care professionals, meaning your child will receive a higher level of education from an early age.
  • Socialization for infants and toddlers: Socialization is vital for infants and young children to learn necessary skills like sharing, communication and conflict resolution.
  • Improved quality of life: Researchers found that children who particpate in an early childhood program are likely to experience many benefits such as improved health outcomes, higher earnings and reduced crime rates overall.


A nanny paints with a small child

Hiring a nanny can also pose a financial challenge, depending on where you live. The average wage for a nanny in the U.S. is $15.07 per hour. However, for infants and young children, there are benefits to hiring a nanny for primary care during the workweek.

  • Individualized attention: A nanny will work with your children on a one-on-one basis. Ultimately, the nanny should grow to understand your child on a personal level more than a day care provider likely could, meaning the care they provide will be tailored to your child’s needs.
  • Children will have a strong attachment base with the nanny: Developing healthy attachment styles is critical at an early age. When you are at work, your children will learn to form a healthy bond with their nanny, helping them feel safe, happy and emotionally secure.
  • Assistance with household chores and tasks: Often, a nanny does more than watching your children. They can arrange activities, transportation, meals and more for your child, which can take some stress off a working parent.

Au Pair

An au pair gives a toddler a hug as she smiles

Hiring an au pair can be a great option for parents looking for full-time childcare while at work. Au pair agencies are run by the U.S. Department of State and have set regulations and contracts between the au pair and family. Au pairs are not U.S. citizens, rather people (often students) who help with childcare and household duties in exchange for room and board and a weekly stipend. Consider these benefits of hiring an au pair.

  • Live-in help: Au pairs live in your home, meaning they’re accessible outside of traditional working hours.
  • An international perspective: Au pairs are from different countries, but most agencies have a minimum language requirement to meet if English is not their first language. This global perspective could be useful in childcare and can expose your children to unique cultures and ways of thinking.
  • Affordability: Au pairs are often less expensive than hiring a nanny, on average. While fees vary by agency, most will charge an application and placement fee, plus a weekly stipend. Au pair services could cost less than $200 per week after placement and other upfront fees.


A babysitter and a young girl enjoy joking around

Babysitters are a great option for families who need shorter-term, part-time child care, as they are typically younger and less experienced in child care and child education. The benefits of hiring a babysitter can be valuable if they fit your family’s needs.

  • Familiar face: Babysitters often come from somewhere in your social circle — a family friend, an older sibling or family member, etc. It is appealing to many parents to know who they are hiring before they walk through the door.
  • Flexible pay: Most babysitters opt for per-hour wages, often at lower rates than full-time nannies or au pairs. However, know that you get what you pay for. Most babysitters are not educators and likely can’t provide teaching services.
  • Flexible hours: Many babysitters are younger, often still in school. This means they are more likely to be available in the evening and on weekends, which could be useful for a parent who works nontraditional hours.

School-Aged Students

Even though elementary school isn’t child care, many parents rely on their children being in school during the day so they can work and tend to other responsibilities. The abrupt closing of schools throughout the country last spring left many parents scrambling to adjust their schedules and working from home while teaching and entertaining their children. Schools are now starting to open, but for many parents, it’s still a difficult decision to decide where learning should take place for their school-aged children.

Public School

Two children are ready for school holding school supplies and wearing masks

Public school is an option for the majority of students in the country. Families are zoned for their local public school based on district zoning regulations and often cannot choose which school they want to attend. Public school is a great option for families who cannot or do not want to pay for a private education and cannot or do not want to home-school their students for any reason.

The three biggest pros of public school are cost (attendance is free), operation during regular working hours (ideal for parents who work full-time) and continued education. However, COVID-19 has impacted public schools, causing many districts to implement strict cleaning and social distancing requirements. Many classrooms are separated by tape to keep desks and students six feet or more apart, and masks must be worn at all times inside many district buildings. Check with your local school district for a full list of COVID-19 safety precautions.

Private School

A girl wearing a backpack is seen in a classroom wearing a mask

Private schools are available in some cities in every state. Many parents value a private education for their traditionally smaller class sizes and more focused learning. However, private schools charge tuition, which can be costly. On average, private elementary school annual tuition is $9,944 and $14,821 for high school. Additionally, most have an application process you and your student must go through before attending.

If you value a more individualized education in a smaller school community, a private school might be a great option for you and your family.

Virtual School

A young girl watches her teacher online as she attends virtual school

Virtual school is offered in private and public school systems, following school board regulations and employing certified teachers to ensure your student’s education will not slip while working from home. Many schools offer virtual learning options for students and parents who aren’t comfortable with learning outside of the home during COVID-19. These options are often either free (for public school students) or the same or less as your current private school tuition.

If you are interested in a virtual learning program not affiliated with your local school or district, there are independent options available. These programs, such as K12, offer courses for kindergarten through high school, at little to no cost, to fit your family's needs. A virtual school option is ideal for families who want to participate in distance learning during the pandemic.

Home School

Two parents are seen home schooling their three children.

Home school is an independent learning option that is more personalized to the student. The household, parent or other home-school supervisor dictates what and when a student learns. Home schooling is a great option for students who need more one-on-one attention in the classroom, particularly with specific subjects.

One major thing to keep in mind when considering home schooling is that you or another parent in your household will likely become the instructor for your student’s schooling. This is a significant lifestyle change for many families and will take some adjustment time. Additionally, while there are both free and paid home-schooling programs available, families are responsible for purchasing all supplies and textbooks needed to complete the education. This makes it a less feasible option for many families, especially during the pandemic.

Private Tutor

A tutor wears a mask as she helps a student in her home.

Suppose you are interested in virtual school or home schooling but are worried that your student will fall behind or struggle outside of a traditional classroom environment. In that case, you can consider hiring a private tutor. Many tutors charge an hourly rate — the average cost for a math tutor ranges from $25–$80 an hour, depending on the level of math being taught. While tutors are an added cost, they can help keep your child on track during these unprecedented times, especially if they do not attend school in person as they usually would.

Education Pods

A private teacher wears a mask as he speaks to one of his students, who also wears a mask

Education, or learning, pods are small groups of students learning outside the classroom but still in person. In this case, parents from the same neighborhood or classroom are pooling resources together to either hire a private tutor or share home-learning responsibilities, often on a rotating basis. These education pods allow students to learn from home in a safe environment, while still having access to peers for support and socialization. Perhaps the biggest appeal is that the responsibility is shared among parents, so the sacrifice is less than that of full-time homeschooling.

It’s important to remember that every family situation is different, and no two children’s education or care needs are the same. Weigh the pros and cons of these options with your spouse, your children and educators in your area to find the solution that best fits your family's needs before going back to school.

About the Author

Nicole Duxbury is a writer for MoneyGeek and a marketing and communications professional based in Reno, Nevada. She has more than five years of professional marketing and communications experience working with clients in travel, food and beverage, CPG, finance, non-profit, higher education and politics. Her work has an emphasis on content writing, social media management, content and digital marketing.