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Short School Days & The Problem Of What To Do With Our Kids During Work

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These days, women can finally have it all. We can work full-time while raising our kids (thanks, school!). Well, until 3 p.m. Then, we have a bit of an issue: The standard school day across the nation ends at 3 p.m., while the workday finishes at 5 if you’re lucky.

Huh? What’s a working parent to do about those two hours in between?

A whopping 3% of elementary school kids, along with 19% of middle school students are left home alone — many of them illegally — until 6 p.m. because of this discrepancy. And those who are able to pay for childcare to cover the gap spend an average of 10% of their family’s income to do so, per an analysis by researchers at the University of New Hampshire.

I don’t make as much money as I did working a 9-to-5, but I think it was a fair trade.

The issue was so concerning for Barbara Nevers, an entrepreneur and mother to two, that she ended up quitting her 9-to-5 job and starting her own business so she’d have a flexible schedule.

“I used to have nightmares about never being around after school, not being able to help him with his homework or drive him to soccer practice,” says Nevers, who founded NeoLittle.com, a parenting website in Sherman Oaks, California.

It’s still tricky, though. Nevers works for three hours before her boys wake, and then she hops back on her computer while they’re in school.

“I don’t make as much money as I did working a 9-to-5, but I think it was a fair trade,” she says.

Simply switching to a new work-from-home career may sound appealing, but it’s not an easy fix for some parents, however.

Mindie Barnett, CEO of MB and Associates Public Relations in Marlton, New Jersey, owns her own business and is a divorced mother of two.

On the three weekdays when she’s responsible for her kids, she hires a babysitter to get them from the bus to their after-school activities.

“I then take over once my office closes,” Barnett says. “I am usually back home by 6 p.m., but it’s always trial and error.”

Add in parent-teacher conference days, professional development days, snow days and more, and the average school is closed for 29 days when parents are working. (We’re not even going to start harping about summer break, which can cost families thousands.)

We essentially have a few options: Quit our jobs, shorten the workday, make the school day longer, or offer free childcare as needed to fill the gaps.

A new bill proposed by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) seeks to create school schedules that match work schedules. She wants to give schools up to $5 million each over five years (a pilot program would start with 500 schools) so they could stay open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., essentially covering the basic working hours. The schools would also use the money to stay open during parent-teacher conferences, professional development days, and all other school-related closures, with the exception of weekends, emergencies and federal holidays.

Every time there’s a day off from school or a sudden closure, it’s a very big deal.

Schools could use the money as they see fit to decide what the kids would do or learn during those extra hours.

“I know first hand that, for many working parents, juggling between school schedules and work schedules is a common cause of stress and financial hardship,” Harris said in a press release accompanying the proposal. “But this does not have to be the case.”

She said that it’s time to modernize the school system, especially since workers haven’t figured out how to catch up: 39% of all workers and 80% of low-wage workers don’t have any paid vacation time. So every time there’s a day off from school or a sudden closure, it’s a very big deal.

Short of giving us all half days forever at full pay (yes please!), Harris’ solution is a good one — as long as we can secure all that cash, says Johan Uvin, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

“Aligning school and work schedules, and expanding summer learning opportunities in the communities that need them most is exactly the kind of equity measure our policymakers should be advancing,” Uvin says.

As we’re typing this story at 4 a.m. in order to finish our workday at 3 p.m. . . . we couldn’t agree more.

Studies referenced:

Mattingly, M., Schaefer, A., Carson, J. (Fall 2019) Child Care Costs Exceed 10 Percent of Family Income for One in Four Families. Carson Research Brief #109, University of New Hampshire, https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1287&context=carsey

Experts:

Johan Uvin, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership