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There’s a childcare gap after school—and it’s hurting families

It's something parents of school-aged kids have asked countless times, and The Atlantic asked it, too: Why does the school day end two hours before the workday?

The question became the headline of a viral piece by writer Kara Voght in 2018. In 2019, the question was on the lips of parents in so many communities, from Salt Lake City to Chicago to New York State, where funding issues threaten after school care programs.

Working parents have been sharing the link because for many moms and dads who don't leave work until five o'clock, the question of what to do with their child when the school bell rings at three is constantly looming.

There is a child care crisis in America (and in other countries, like Australia and Canada) and many parents are scrambling to fill the gap between the end of the school day and the end of their workday.

The after school care crisis

As Voght points out for The Atlantic, "Seventy-five percent of women with school-age children now work. Yet fewer than half of American public schools offer an after-school program," and in many communities the wait-lists for after-school care are frustratingly long.

According to the After School Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to advocating for after school care, "for every child in an afterschool program, approximately two more children would be enrolled if a program were available to them."

There simply aren't enough programs or enough spaces for all the kids who need after-school care, and finding alternatives is tough. Most nannies aren't lining up to work just a couple of hours per day, and even if parents find a nanny, babysitter or private daycare that can accommodate their schedule (and pick up the children from school or meet them at the bus stop), that kind of care is an expensive solution that's out of reach for most.

So when parents can't get after-school care through school or community programs, families have to make difficult choices. Often, mothers are forced to cut back on their working hours. In this way, the gap between the end of the school day and the end of the workday is a factor in the gender wage gap.

The economic and social costs of misaligned schedules

A 2016 report by the Centers for American Progress suggests "misaligned school schedules cost the U.S. economy $55 billion in lost productivity annually...First, they result in lower levels of full-time employment among women with elementary-school-age children...Second, the economy loses productivity due to school closings. When school is closed, many parents have to take time off from work in order to care for their children."

Indeed, CAP found that schools don't have classes on 29 days per school year. This doesn't include summer break, but does factor in things like staff training days and federal and state holidays. Add to that the half-days that are increasingly popping up on school calendars, and family schedules get even further out of sync.

When parents simply can't miss work to be there after school or on a staff training day, some children are left unsupervised. This puts them at an increased risk for sedentary screen time, poor food choices and high-risk social behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control, after-school programs or "Out of School Time" programs, can help improve a kid's report card and their health.

Unfortunately, as Voght points out for The Atlantic, 3% of elementary-school students and 19% of middle-school students look after themselves from 3 to 6 p.m. after school.

So what's the solution here?

Mother walking son (6-7) to school

Extending the school day to typical office hours would be cost-prohibitive for many schools, and some parents are not in favor of longer school hours, worrying that kids are already overburdened with homework and burnout. Some point to Finland and its short school days and light homework loads as an example of educational success. There, children attend school from about 9 AM to 2 PM, and the Nordic country is known for its excellent test scores.

But here's the thing about Finland: People there work shorter hours than the average American.

According to Statistics Finland, 71% of full-time workers put in 35 to 40 hours in 2016, and a large minority, 19% had a usual workweek of 30 to 34 hours. Only 10% were typically working more than 40 hours a week.

In America, more than 40 hours is the norm, not the exception. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, the average U.S. worker is putting in 47 hours a week, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics' numbers are only slightly better, at 44 hours.

Maybe the answer to the after-school care crisis isn't just about making the school day longer, but also making parents' workdays shorter—or at least more flexible.

[A version of this post was originally published September 10, 2018. It has been updated.]

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