Coronavirus: What if the children suddenly need to be home alone?

Credit: StockSnap /

Credit: StockSnap /

Schools are closed, daycares are to be avoided if possible, and officials suggest people over 60 not care for children right now. That could be setting up a storm of challenges for anyone who still needs to be going to work.

While children seem to be faring relatively well even when infected with coronavirus, the nature of the disease makes it easy to spread. Government officials say that has been the driving force behind closing schools, as the virus could be spread within school, then taken home and shared with families, including those who may be at significant risk from coronavirus. For many parents, the back up when a school closes is a daycare. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has not ordered day cares to be closed, but it is a possibility at any time, and the governor asked that people try to avoid using daycares for the same reasons schools are closed. And the other backup may be to have grandparents watch the kids when schools are closed. That’s a problem because the grandparents may be the ones most at risk.

So what is a parent who has to leave the house to do?

Some parents in the Miami Valley have been able to help each other, reaching out through social media and other channels to watch each other’s children. With many teachers and college students also idled, it’s worth reaching out to a community you trust to see if anyone can help.

If leaving children home appears to be the best option, there are some guidelines from various experts and agencies.

First, there is no law in Ohio about a minimum age, but parents and guardians are responsible for providing adequate care and supervision of children. That means it can be subjective, and really comes down to the individual maturity and readiness of each child. Only 3 states have minimum ages; Maryland, at 8 years old; Oregon, at 10 years old; Illinois, at 14 years old. For your child, the right age may be somewhere in that range. Generally, 8 is considered too young to be home alone for more than a very brief period, while 12 is usually a safe age to be home alone for much of the day. Of course, just because a child is able to stay home alone does not mean they are ready to care for other, younger children. That is something to consider, too. gives these questions for parents to ask as they determine whether a child is mature enough to be home without parents:

  • Is your child physically and mentally able to care for him- or herself?
  • Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
  • How does your child respond to unfamiliar or stressful situations?
  • Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?

Those are a first step, but even understanding the child’s maturity is only one factor to consider. Another is how easily they can get help in a crisis. Can they easily call you at any time? Are there trusted neighbors nearby who they can go to for help? Will they need to fix a meal or use the stove? How each of those questions are answered can help determine a necessary support structure for a child. also asks these questions:

  • How many children are being left home alone? Children who seem ready to stay home alone may not necessarily be ready to care for younger siblings.
  • Is your home safe and free of hazards? Hazards can include nonworking smoke alarms; improperly stored cleaning chemicals, firearms, and medication; unsecured furniture, pools, unlocked alcohol, etc.
  • How safe is your neighborhood? Is there a high incidence of crime?
  • Does your child know how to lock or secure the doors? Does your child have a key to your home or a plan if he or she gets locked out?

It’s also important to remember whether there is a phone in the home. As adults, we often take for granted the ability to call someone at any time. However, many homes no longer have phones, and if the child does not have access to a cell phone or smart speaker that can make calls, they may not be able to call you—or 911—for help. You’ll need a plan in this case.

The American Red Cross created a set of best practices for when children will be home alone for the first time. They include setting ground rules for communication and whether anyone can come over. The Red Cross also recommends:

  • Post an emergency phone list where the children can see it. Include 9-1-1, the parents' work and cell numbers, numbers for neighbors, and the numbers for anyone else who is nearby and trusted.
  • Practice an emergency plan with the child so they know what to do in case of fire, injury or other emergencies. Write the plan down and make sure the child knows where it is.
  • Let children know where the flashlights are. Make sure that the batteries are fresh, and that the child knows how to use them.
  • Remove or safely store in locked areas dangerous items like guns, knives, hand tools, power tools, razor blades, scissors, ammunition and other objects that can cause injury.
  • Make sure potential poisons like detergents, polishes, pesticides, lighter fluid and lamp oils are stored in locked cabinets or out of the reach of children.
  • Make sure medicine is kept in a locked storage place or out of the reach of children.
  • Install safety covers on all unused electrical outlets.
  • Limit any cooking a young child can do. Make sure at least one approved smoke alarm is installed and operating in the kitchen, on each level of the home and in sleeping areas.
  • If children have approved access to smart phones or tablets, download the free Red Cross First Aid Appso they'll have instant access to expert advice for everyday emergencies.
  • Limit the time the child spends in front of the television or computer. Caution them to not talk about being home alone on public websites. Kids should be cautious about sharing information about their location when using chat rooms or posting on social networks.

And there are safety tips to consider, also from the Red Cross:

  • Lock the doors and if the home has an electronic security system, children should learn how to turn it on and have it on when home alone.
  • Never open the door to strangers. Always check before opening the door to anyone, looking out through a peephole or window first.
  • Never open the door to delivery people or service representatives. Ask delivery people to leave the package at the door or tell them to come back at another time. Service representatives, such as a TV cable installer, should have an appointment when an adult is home.
  • Never tell someone on the telephone that the parents are not at home. Say something like "He or she is busy right now. Can I take a message?"
  • Do not talk about being home alone on social media websites. Kids should be cautious about sharing information about their location when using chat rooms or posting on social networks.
  • Never leave the house without permission. If it's okay to go outside, children should tell their parents where they are going, when they are leaving, and when they will return. If mom and dad are still at work, children should call them when they return home.
  • Do not go outside to check out an unusual noise. If the noise worries the child, they should call their parents, an adult or the police.
  • Don't talk to strangers.
  • Do not have friends over to visit when your parents aren't at home unless you have permission to do so. Do not let anyone inside who is using drugs or alcohol, even if you know them.
  • If the child smells smoke or hears a fire or smoke alarm, they should get outside and ask a neighbor to call the fire department.

Experts with the Ohio State University say, in a resource guide, "There is no magic age at which children can stay home alone. What matters most is (1) whether they are mature enough, (2) they know how to respond in emergency situations, and (3) they are willing to follow directions and rules. If your children are not comfortably self-sufficient in your absence, they are not ready to stay home alone."

But in all of the tips that usually apply to leaving children home alone for the first time, there is something else to consider. The sudden and sweeping changes due to the coronavirus pandemic can leave kids feeling anxiety. Click here for expert advice to help kids deal with anxiety.

And there is another factor to consider. If you are aware of someone who is struggling to care for children who could be in danger if left alone, you are asked to call local authorities or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453). Find more information on their website:

Also, the Ohio Department of Education has put out an information guide for schools and parents.