There’s a big disconnect between school schedules and the schedules of most working parents. Schools are often closed when parents are expected to be at work. And school start and end times don’t align with the traditional work day causing lots of problems for moms and dads, especially those with low-wage jobs that don’t offer much flexibility.
These are some of the findings of a study released last month by the Center for American Progress.
The report titled, “Workin’ 9 to 5: How School Schedules Make Life Harder for Working Parents” examines the disconnect between school schedules and the schedules of working parents and offers possible solutions to the problem.
Catherine Brown is one of the study’s authors and the vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress.
She said the typical school schedule today harkens back to a much different time in American society.
“School schedules got formulated at a time when one parent, typically the mother, didn’t work outside of the home and was available to pick the child up at 3 and be there on the days off,” said Brown. “As society has evolved, we haven’t invested more in our school systems to allow them to evolve. I think we still idealize the family structure that I just described, so we have a resistance to accept that that’s not the norm anymore.”
The study highlights the daily challenges faced by working parents from the typical two-hour gap between when school ends and when parents get off work to intermittent school closures.
The researchers surveyed the nation’s largest school districts about their schedules, calendars, and policies during the summer and fall of 2015 and also analyzed data from the Schools and Staffing Survey for the 2011-12 school year.
They found that on average schools are closed 29 days a year, excluding summer recess. That’s more than 10 days longer than the average private-sector worker gets off in paid vacation and holidays.
On top of that, parents also have to contend with things like snow days, which many employers don’t observe. And, then there are school sick policies, which often require a child to be picked up immediately for even the mildest of ailments.
Researchers found that many districts require parents to pick up their child within an hour of being notified that the child is sick.
“When a worker has to walk away because the school says you must be here immediately, that’s just time when you’re not working, so there’s no question there is a productivity loss,” said Brown.
The researchers quantified that loss at $55 billion dollars annually.
The study finds that moms bear the brunt of these challenges with some dropping down to part-time work to accommodate school schedules, particularly when their children are in elementary school.
The researchers note that only 53 percent of mothers whose youngest child is in elementary school work full-time compared with 60 percent of mothers whose youngest child is in middle or high school.
Unusual School Closures
There are some days that tend to be days off for nearly everyone. Think Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But the researchers found some districts closing on unusual days. For example, in Lancaster, Pa., school is closed on the first day of hunting season.
“The holidays vary a lot,” said Brown. “Some districts are closed for Veteran’s Day or Columbus Day. Others aren’t.”
Some districts also observe Jewish holidays, while others observe Muslim holidays. And some districts close for both.
Families with children in public, private, and charter schools may also face vast differences in schedules. One may only close for Thanksgiving and the following Friday, while another shuts down for the whole week.
“This can easily more than double the amount of days off that a parent has to take, and often not connected to core academic purposes,” said Brown. “It’s pretty hard to justify shutting down for the start of hunting season.”
The researchers find that professional development for teachers is a huge driver in days off for students. For example, in the Miami-Dade school district, school is closed for seven full days for this.
The study suggests that professional development should be incorporated into the school day and mentions that other industries don’t often shut down so workers can receive training. The study recommends staggered schedules for teachers as one way to deal with the problem.
“Schools can really think outside of the box and get teachers the professional learning that they need and deserve and do it in a way that it’s not shutting down the entire school,” said Brown.
Many parents turn to after-school programs to help make sure their kids have something productive to do when school ends. But the report found that the need exceeds the demand, and many programs are inaccessible to parents due to the cost associated with them.
Fewer than half of elementary schools offer before- and after-school programs, and that number is even lower for low-income schools.
The report suggests that a 9-to-5 school day would be a better solution. This would solve what they cite as a disconnect that often occurs between what kids are learning in after-school programs versus what they’re learning during the regular school day.
The researchers say Title I funds could be used to design a 9-to-5 school day, and other federal funds could be used to provide extended learning time and to change the way schools handle professional development.
But asking teachers to work a longer day is problematic, especially if they’re not being offered higher wages. And, Brown says that is something the Center for American Progress would be against.
“We’re not saying in this report that teachers should work longer hours for the same amount of pay,” said Brown. “We’d like to see a different set of staff or staggered schedules or community-based organizations come to school to extend the school day.”
In Brown’s vision, teachers would have a more professional workday with lots of support that would end the common practice of teachers having to routinely take work home with them.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.