What is child care like in America right now?

Mariana Austin (left) of Castro Valley, California, shown here with her son and husband, Gabriel Austin, is able to stay home with Axel, age 2, thanks to a paid leave program passed by the US Congress in March.

(CNN)Caring for children during Covid-19 has meant wrenching choices for many, but Frances Ber hardly saw a choice at all.

Ber manages the social services department at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California, a job that now includes finding isolation housing for Covid-19 patients and connecting grieving families with mortuaries.
Ber's also a single mom to a 5-year-old boy.
"It came as a shock when I got the text message from his school, saying 'You have to pick up your kid as soon as possible,'" Ber said. "I'm like: panic mode."
    That was March 13, and the ensuing months have stretched Ber's finances and energy. She can't work from home. A day camp for children for essential workers closed after two months. Now, her son is enrolled in a camp that ends in August, weeks before his elementary school is supposed to open.
    She doesn't yet know what the school's plan is for the fall, but said that accommodating online learning would be extremely difficult for her. "I pray that he's going to go in-person," Ber said.
    As Covid-19 spread across the United States, parents and other caregivers adapted their child care routines to closed schools, shuttered day cares and transformed workplaces.
    It's been a challenge. Some, like Ber, kept their kids in child care outside of the home; she's earning a living and fighting the pandemic. But the ways Americans are caring for their kids runs the gamut, from full lockdowns to creative arrangements and merged bubbles.
    And as infection rates rise, some parents are realizing that adapting to the virus will mean staying nimble for many months to come.
    That's what Caitlin Giddings of Austin, Texas, is facing now. After taking their 2-year-old daughter out of day care in March, Giddings and her wife cared for her at home, coordinating work schedules and losing sleep. On June 1, they brought her back to day care, which they'd continued paying for through the pandemic.
    Caitlin Giddings (far left) of Austin, Texas, is shown here with her family. With the rise of Covid-19 cases, she's considering whether to remove their 2-year-old from day care — for the second time.
    "I feel like they're doing a good job," said Giddings, describing mandatory temperature checks and masked adults at the day care.
    But Covid-19 cases in Texas are rising quickly, and Giddings is rethinking the decision, wondering if it's time to bring their daughter back home once again.
    "It's just the unknown factor of not knowing if she could be one of the kids that gets really sick," she said. "We're just nervous about adding more people to the circle."

    How are Americans assessing the risk of child care?

    She's not alone in her concern. While polling specific to child care has been scarce, multiple polls have found that parents are worried about the risk of infection at school, including one from Ipsos and The Marist Poll. As of late May, one out of every five schoolteachers also had doubts about coming back.
    Meanwhile, many parents have been paying for child care, even while caring for their kids at home. And experts say that access to child care is an important key to economic recovery.
    One source of uncertainty is a lack of systematic data about infection rates at child care centers.
    Economist Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and the author of books on data-driven parenting, wants that to change. Oster has been compiling data on confirmed Covid-19 infections at child care centers using surveys sent to providers.
    Of the 970 centers Oster surveyed, there were 106 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among a total staff of 9,589, an infection rate of 1.11%.
    The impacts on children were lower. Among a total of 27,234 students, there were 42 confirmed Covid-19 cases, an infection rate of 0.15%. And though some children have faced serious Covid-19 complications, the US Centers for Disease Control has reported that Covid-19 hospitalization rates for children are still lower than hospitalization rates for influenza in recent years.
    "It's pretty clear from this that the rates for children and the rates for adults are different," she said. "That's not super surprising, but it's confirmed here."
    Oster emphasized that the data is flawed, pointing out that it's not a random sample. And while Oster noted on her blog that "some data is better than none," she added that most of all, her work underscores the need for more research.
    "Everything says we need more data," she said. "I'd really like to see someone who isn't me —maybe someone official, like a state — collect more data on this."

    Parents on total child care lockdowns

    Oster is planning to send her own kids, ages 5 and 9, to camp this summer. Infection rates are down in Rhode Island, where she lives, and for now she thinks it's worth the risk.
    But with so much uncertainty, some parents are doing whatever they can to keep their children on total lockdown: no friends, no paid providers and definitely no day care or camp.
    "I am going it alone, day in day out, with a 3½-year-old," said Cara McGowan of Peoria, Illinois. "It's not for the faint of heart."
    Her daughter had planned to attend preschool in the fall, but McGowan has decided that she'll do her best to homeschool until there's an effective treatment. "Not fully understanding this illness, we're really not comfortable, at this time, sending her off."
    The economy can't recover until parents have child care again