by Taryn Morrissey, Associate Professor of Public Administration and Policy, American University School of Public Affairs
Whether I’m looking at the question of why it has always been hard to be a working parent in the United States as a mother with two children under 7, or as ascholar of child and family policy, one reason stands out. The hoursemployers demandandpublic school scheduleshave always been incompatible.
While children attend K-12 public schools for anaverage of 1,195 hours per year, a full-time working parent averages twice as much time, about 2,450 hours per year, working and commuting.
This fall, it looks likemillions of U.S. children will spend no hours at schoolat all. And for nearly every parent, the usual complicated dance between their jobs and their kids’ daily schedules has become even more complex, asschool systemsadjust their plans in accordance with what’s possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of mid-July, for example, New York City – the country’s biggest school district – was planning to have children in classrooms only two or three days a week once the new school year gets underway. Los Angeles – the second-largest – was planning to keep learning fully online.
An issue of inequality
Public pre-K programs and the federally fundedHead Startprogram together enroll only47% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-oldsand most of these programs are only “half-day,” meaning that they run for four hours at most.
Once children are ready for elementary school, only a handful of states requirefull-day kindergarten.
Wealthy and high-earning parents bridge this gulffor their children of all ages with elaborate – and expensive – webs ofpaid people and programsthat can include in-school after-care, enrichment activities, babysitters and nannies.
Parents who can’t afford those things and have few choices rely instead on their relatives, neighbors and friends to fill the gaps schools don’t cover with moreinformal arrangements.
Now even worse
Since March 2020, most U.S. parents have faced the daunting task of working full-time while caring for – and at least attempting on school days to help teach – their children all week long.
This challenge is widespread. Anestimated one-thirdof U.S. workers have child care obligations.
Withschoolsandchild care programslargely shuttered, mostsummer campscanceled or online, and families understandably reluctant to rely on elderly relatives, the hours of child care have gone, in many cases, to zero. But for the workers lucky enough to remain employed, work hours have held steady.
Moreover, social distancing guidelines discourage associating with others outside of the household – which can include nannies and babysitters.
I anticipate that many parents, mostlymothers, will be forced tomiss work,cut their hoursorquit their jobs. Taking this step might make help make life less hectic and ensure care for their children in the short term. But it also takes a toll on their current and futureeconomic security.
I don’t think juggling work and parenting has to be this hard, or that things should ever have been as hard as they were before this crisis. After the pandemic ends, the U.S. shouldn’t aspire for parents to return to the expensive, exhausting jujitsu of 2019.
I argue that the nation should, in the long term, ensure that everyone has access to affordable, high-quality options that span from infancy through the teen years through a combination ofchild care subsidiesand more funding for care for children before and after the school day.
More spending oninfant and toddler careand summer activities – a time of year during which families oftenstruggleto find andpay forcare – could help reduce income gaps in children’sreadiness for kindergartenandsummer learning loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed parents’ delicate, very difficult and unsustainable balancing act.
This complex crisis offers a time of reckoning. Americans have an opportunity to re-imagine how the government can support family life – to make raising children less expensive, less stressful, more socially just and simply better for everyone.