The eyes of my friend Laura have dark circles from lack of sleep. During the statewide COVID-19 lockdown that forced all daycare centers and K-12 schools to close, Laura, the mother of two little boys aged 4 and 6, spent the majority of the day taking care of her children. She tried to catch up on work from 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. before the kids woke up and then again from 8 p.m. to midnight after the kids went to sleep. She did this every day for four months. The brutal schedule has taken a toll on her.
Now, Laura contemplates quitting her job. While she gets some relief from the ability to send her younger one to daycare, the school her older boy attends offers a hybrid approach that combines online learning with in-person instruction a few times a week. Laura learned in the past few months that her older boy had trouble focusing on online learning even with her constant presence.
Her husband Mike tried to help out, but as the main breadwinner of the family, he can’t afford to get too distracted from his work. Concerned her boy may fall further behind in his education, Laura thinks the only option is to quit her job, so she can home-school her older son while taking care of her youngest.
For Laura and Mike, however, such a move would cause immense financial strain. Like many young American couples, Laura and Mike carry a combined student loan debt of $65,000. Yet Laura believes staying at home and teaching her six-year-old herself is the only way to ensure he won’t fall further behind academically. At least, she figures, she could take care of her four-year-old at home too, saving $10,000 a year on daycare.
Laura is hardly alone in thinking about this. Sacrificing their careers for school-aged children is a difficult decision many working American women face due to the prolonged school closures and slow and uneven reopenings.
Before the COVID-19 panic, American women enjoyed the best job market in decades. Only a year ago, the Wall Street Journal reports that while men still make up a slim majority (53.4 percent) of the overall workforce, 2019 marked the first year women represented a majority of the college-educated labor force. Unfortunately, the government shutdown of the economy in response to COVID-19 effectively wiped out the recent employment gains made by women.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55 percent of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April were women. Yet among the 2.5 million jobs that came back in May, less than half went to women. One of the main reasons fewer women are rejoining the labor force — including women like Laura who kept their jobs during the lockdown but now have to quit — is due to lacking fulltime in-person schooling for their school-aged children.
About a third of the U.S. labor force is made up of parents with school-aged children. For countless American families, sending their children to school is more than getting an education. Since the national average annual cost of childcare runs upwards of $10,000 annually, schools also provide these families cheaper childcare so parents can work. School closures and moving classes online have taken this taxpayer-provided childcare option away.
On top of this, before the spring semester was over, many parents realized remote learning was a failure. Some families lacked reliable internet connection or had no connection at all; some online teaching material was poorly prepared; in some school districts, as much as a third didn’t even sign up for their daily online classes, and a survey shows more than half of the students didn’t feel motivated to complete online assignments.
Parents’ productivity suffers when they must juggle between supervising the education of their children while working from home. Researchers at the Brookings Institution estimate that such lost productivity is already costing the U.S. economy at least $56 billion a month, or $500 billion in a 9-month school year if schools are not fully open.
Families with means have come up with creative solutions, such as hiring full-time, live-in nannies, or forming small “learning pods” with several families and hiring private tutors. One of my neighbors formed one learning pod with a few other families who share the cost of hiring a fulltime educator for $4,000 a month. For many American families, such options remain out of reach financially.
This fall, 11 out of 50 largest school districts decided to continue to offer only online learning. The rest of the school districts said they would offer a hybrid model of partially in-person learning. Yet even a hybrid approach doesn’t provide working families much relief. Parents still have to oversee their kids for the days of the week they are not physically in school. New York City just announced that it will delay in-person class until September 21.
It is simply unrealistic to expect many parents to have the type of jobs that let them work from home whenever they need to. Therefore, the natural conclusion for these households is that one parent, usually the mother, has to quit working to take care of their kids.
Plenty of researchers have shown quitting the workforce midway is detrimental to women’s earning power. According to Payscale.com, “People who return to work after a period of unemployment make 4 percent less than someone who has not recently had a career disruption. Meanwhile, someone who has not worked in over a year experiences a 7.3 percent penalty in pay.”
A study from TD Bank found that the ages between 25 to 44 — the age group most working mothers are in — are the most crucial period in building a successful career because they are the years workers learn the required skills and build a professional network that is necessary for future advancement. Essentially, leaving the workforce during this period has a negative long-term impact on a working mother’s career, causing her to miss advancement opportunities and eroding her earning power for decades to come.
Several European countries, including Germany, have pushed ahead to reopen schools with full-time, in-person instructions with little debate. In these advanced societies, consensus exists that keeping children at home hinders their learning and mental health and prevents parents from engaging in productive work.
Unfortunately, in the United States, reopening schools has become a partisan issue. Most Democrats and their allies — notably, teachers unions — prefer to keep classrooms closed and continue to rely mostly on online learning. Yet the undeniable fact is that the longer children have to remain at home, the more working mothers will have to quit their jobs for childcare, setting back their careers and financial wellbeing for decades.
The Democrats like to claim their party stands up for women’s rights and advancement. But by siding with teachers unions and refusing to reopen schools for fulltime in-person instruction, they’ve declared a war on working American mothers.