Mayor Bill de Blasio caught a lot of flack on Thursday for not closing schools in the face of an all-day snowstorm. He even raised the ire of the normally apolitical Al Roker, who horned in on Nate Silver’s turf by predicting de Blasio would be a one-termer for his shoddy response to the inclement weather.
The mayor’s office did a bad job of storm response, and an even worse job of handling criticism. However, his response pointed to an even bigger issue. Namely, that schools and municipal governments everywhere (not just New York City) have failed to evolve along with the changing needs of working families.
Once, it was more common for a family to have one breadwinner and one stay-at-home parent. This has not been the case in the majority of households for several decades. By 2007, there were three times as many households with two earners as households with just one. And that’s across America as a whole. It’s hard to find comparable stats for New York City, but the simple economics of living there require both adults in a two-parent household to work.
New York City tends to not shut down the school system because doing so induces a ripple effect that negatively impacts thousands of businesses, as workers are forced to stay home and watch their kids. The mayor’s response when criticized for leaving the schools open was clumsy at best; some of his assertions were straight up not true, like when he insisted the National Weather Service’s snow predictions underestimated the strength of the storm, which they did not. But de Blasio did one thing right when he pointed to the impact closing schools has on working parents as his primary reason for that decision.
However, the school system doesn’t work on the same schedule as most businesses. Most parents work 9 to 5 or 6, but schools close at 2:30, for seemingly no other reason than that’s when they’ve always closed, and because there used to be stay-at-home parents waiting to receive all these kids mid-afternoon.
For most parents, the childcare gap is occupied by afterschool programs. Some are run directly by the city; others are funded by city grants and run by community organizations. These provide a vital service for working families, especially for low-income households that can apply for such services at low or no cost.
Here’s where the issue lies. Education—as represented by the school system—is considered a vital service. Child care—as represented by the afterschool programs—is not. The number of two-earner households continues to rise, a trend that is unlikely to reverse in our lifetimes. And yet school systems, and the municipalities who own them, continue to regard child care services that serve working families (such as afterschool programs) as something “extra,” a nice add-on. In reality, these services are every bit as vital to working parents as school itself.
On Thursday, though schools were open, the Department of Education canceled all afterschool programs (see screenshot from the DOE’s website below), already the third time they were canceled since the first of the year. When afterschool programs are canceled, it forces parents to leave work early and travel home on roads that are, presumably, treacherous enough to warrant said cancellation.
How this affects a working parent depends on what kind of work the parent does. If you have a professional office-type job, your management is probably sensitive to these issues. Thus, leaving work early to pick up your kid in a snowstorm is a mere inconvenience. If you’re salaried, you won’t have to worry about losing any money to do so.
But let’s say you work in retail or the service industry. Your boss might let you leave, but you won’t get paid. Someone who works a retail or service job will probably feel the loss of a few hours’ pay more keenly than a better-compensated office worker would. In short, the cancellation of afterschool programs hurts most those who can afford it least.
The failure to recognize the importance of afterschool programs is indicative of a larger failure of school systems everywhere to adapt to the needs of modern households. In New York State, for instance, there are around 180 school days per year. Assuming a parent gets two weeks’ vacation, receives all major holidays off, and never has to work weekends, he or she has to be at work about 230 days a year. That leaves a differential of 50 days, and even this gap assumes an amount of off time that many parents can’t count on.
Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, American adults have a pronounced antipathy to taking days off of work. This has to do less with ingrained Puritan work ethic and more to do with the fact that many of us simply can’t afford lengthy vacations. And yet, we give our children one of the shortest school years in the world. Making kids spend more time in school clashes with our post-Boomer notion that the ideal childhood is filled with acres of free time to play and be creative. This is how parents wind up with a gap of 50 days (or more for many parents) that must be filled by some form of child care.
What’s especially infuriating about this gap is how little bearing it has on the realities of modern lives. The bulk of those 50 days are comprised of summer vacation, an antiquated remnant from the days when most kids had to help out on farms during the hotter months. The rest comes from extended vacations that do not correspond to any parallel time off received by working adults. The discrepancy between the schedules of school-age children and the schedules of earners forces periodic child care crises, adding unnecessary stress to the already stressful state of being a working parent.
Next week, kids in New York City won’t just have off for President’s Day. They receive five days of something called Mid-Winter Recess. Most working parents don’t get their own Mid-Winter Recess. There are day camps to take care of all those unleashed kids, assuming parents can afford them. Those who can’t have to hope a grandmother or friend can keep an eye on the kids. If not, they have to take off those five days, assuming their boss will let them come back to work when it’s all over. And keep in mind that this Mid-Winter Recess comes only six weeks after kids were off for eight days around Christmas and New Year’s.
All this time off has no relevance to a modern family’s schedule, and it might even be detrimental to children’s academic development. The same can be said of a school day that ends when most parents still have hours left on the clock.
Of course, there is no solution that will make everyone happy. Absent federal legislation for paid family leave (which seems a non-starter), it would basically require employers to be accommodating to working families’ schedules. Any solution would also require teachers to work more days and hours. Most teachers would say they work hard enough as it is, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the difficulty of arriving at a solution shouldn’t be a reason to not fix something that’s clearly broken.
There has to be some way to shrink the time gap between working parents and their children. Perhaps it begins with thinking of those post-2:30 hours not as afterschool, but school period, thinking of child care not as some extra thing but a necessary thing. Until we do, snow days are the least of our problems.