Opinion
What the Coronavirus Means for Grandparent Caretakers
Robin Olimb/DigitalVision Vectors

With schools closed across the country, there are nearly 3 million students at home with a primary caretaker who is a grandparent-and in an age group most vulnerable to COVID-19. This entire population of caretakers-and by extension the children they care for-are often invisible in education discourse.

The percent of children living in a grandparent's household has risen over the past 50 years, from around 3 percent in 1970 to nearly 7 percent in 2010. This number increased during the Great Recession and again during the opioid crisis. Even under normal circumstances, grandparent caretakers are at higher risk for illness due to age, stress, and income.

Research shows that grandparents raising grandchildren already shouldered numerous burdens even before this pandemic. They are more likely to be under a financial strain, tend to have lower levels of education, and are often single. As a whole, they are also working more; the number of retirement-age Americans still working has doubled since 1985. These grandparents also lack a support system: National survey data released in 2018 show that almost a third of grandparents report having no one to turn to for day-to-day emotional support with parenting.

These vulnerable families are not distributed uniformly across the country. It is therefore imperative that federal, state, and local governments analyze the data closely when planning for the continued impact of this pandemic to account for a heightened burden on certain school districts. My analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that some districts have hundreds or even thousands of children whose caretakers are at high risk from the coronavirus because of their age.

Using ESRI ArcGIS Online, a powerful mapping tool, we can display data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to see how unevenly distributed this population of students in the care of grandparents is around the country and even district by district. Particularly in larger, countywide school districts, caretakers at high risk from the virus are clustered together. And in many of the more rural areas, students from a large geographic region might be served by a single school.

Many of these areas are concentrated in the Southern region of the United States and are some of the poorest tracts in the country. In Mississippi alone, for instance, students in their grandparents' care amount to nearly 57,000. In Texas, these students account for a higher total number-nearly 328,000 school-age children are in the care of grandparents-but a smaller proportion of the state's much larger overall student population.

What can we do so that schools aren't alone in supporting these vulnerable families? There are a dizzying array of government and nonprofit organizations focused on the needs of older Americans, including the Federal Administration on Aging, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, state and area agencies on aging, and thousands of community-based care initiatives across the country. Federal, state, and municipal governments must share information with each other to understand what resources school districts need to keep their oldest community members safe. Most important, all levels of government must coordinate their support for grandparents caring for school-age children.

Some states and municipalities have already expanded subsidies for grandparents, while community health centers and regional health and social services across the country are also doing their best to serve aging populations. The $2 trillion CARES Act set aside small pools of money for housing the elderly, but federal and state governments need to extend direct subsidies to this population to help them cope with the pandemic and its economic fallout.

State and county education agencies are in a position to direct existing efforts to where they are needed most by (virtually) convening superintendents to plan, share practices, and collaborate on serving this population during this crisis. Some regional nonprofits and government agencies have, for instance, already been offering grandparent caretakers technological support to facilitate their grandchildren's remote instruction during this pandemic.

Communities can support grandparent caretakers as well. Since students being raised by grandparents are more likely to be food insecure, community members should still donate to food pantries, while being careful to observe any adjusted drop-off protocols to protect workers. Some senior centers are offering volunteer-run virtual meet-ups. Other municipalities have programs that match elderly residents with younger volunteers. Most critically, people must follow shelter-in-place orders. This keeps at-risk populations safe by limiting the spread of infection.

School leaders and staff also have a role to play, but they are too overburdened to do it without support from all levels of government and their local communities. Teachers across the country are already being asked to track down students, a job that is particularly difficult where mobile phone and internet access is low. When doing so, school staff should pay particular attention to helping teachers connect with grandparent caretakers. Schools can also share information about local health and social services with their school communities and particularly with families that school staff know may be at risk.

Schools that were already working as community hubs for social services and health care should continue to do so whenever possible during these precarious times.

Policymakers are already making difficult decisions about what services to offer and to whom during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, many school districts-primarily those in poor, rural areas-do not have the capacity to provide additional social services to at-risk caretakers, even as those services are needed to ensure that both students and their caretakers stay safe. We cannot ask schools to address the needs of both students and grandparent caretakers alone.


Jacob Alonso is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. A former teacher, school district leader, and consultant, he now studies education policy with a focus on equity and social justice.

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