Opinion: Schools Expect Too Much of Working Parents

us news & world report

While balancing work and family life is never a simple task, it often seems that public schools add to the problem. A few weeks ago, for instance, the school nurse rang me up: My 8-year-old daughter had a headache. Could I come by the school with some Tylenol?

Due to school policy the school nurse couldn't administer one of the most widely used, over-the-counter drugs in the world, meaning I needed to table my work and visit the school to help give my daughter a tablespoon of basic medicine.

The week before that, our school closed its doors for the day for teacher training, throwing a different wrench into my schedule. My wife and I struggled to find child care for our daughters.

For most working parents, the difficult juggling between work schedules and school schedules is typical. School days that end mid-afternoon, frequent closings and strict medical policies make life for many parents a heart-wrenching balancing act. But it may be taking a greater toll than many people realize.

In a new report I wrote with my colleagues at the Center for American Progress, we found that, over the course of a school year, districts close their doors for 29 weekdays on average, which is far more than the number of days most working parents have in paid vacation and holidays. That's the equivalent of six full weeks of school, and these figures do not include summer vacation, early dismissals or unexpected closings due to bad weather.

This misalignment between school schedules and work schedules creates tremendous costs for parents, their children and the economy. In fact, misaligned school schedules could be costing the U.S. economy a staggering $55 billion in lost productivity each year.

The reasons for many school closings are questionable at best. For example, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, most schools close on the opening day of deer hunting season, something that clearly has nothing to do with academic outcomes.

Meanwhile, some school policies force parents to jump through seemingly impossible hoops. In Duval County, Florida, for example, parents or guardians are expected to pick up their child from school within 60 minutes of being notified that their child has a headache or fever.

To a large degree, it often feels like school districts simply assume that one parent is always on call to attend to their child whenever school closes, is delayed or even during a non-emergency like my daughter's headache.

But this doesn't reflect the realities of the modern family. There are more parents working full time than ever, and many of them don't have flexible schedules. In fact, nearly half of all workers – part-time and full-time – report having no flexibility in their work schedules.

While poorly aligned school schedules affect all families, perhaps the greatest burden falls on low-income households. Low-income families often have little control over their work schedules, and they're far more likely to work irregular, on-call, split or rotating shift times. At the same time, these workers are less likely to easily afford the sky-high costs of child care, which exceeds college costs in many areas.

Fortunately, there are ways that schools can help lessen the burden on working parents. A number of schools around the country have extended their school day or year in a cost-effective manner. For instance, many schools are partnering with volunteer organizations – such as AmeriCorps and Citizen Schools – to bring on extra staff at little to no cost to help lengthen the school day. Other schools, such as the high-performing Brooklyn Generation High School in New York City, reduce costs by staggering teacher schedules.

Some schools are also rethinking the way in which they connect with parents. For instance, some school districts – like in Mason, Kentucky – are implementing parent-teacher home visits. So instead of scheduling parent-teacher conferences in the middle of the work day, teachers meet with parents in the family's home. Other alternatives to school-based conferences include the use of online platforms such as Skype.

To be fair, designing a school calendar that meets the needs of all working parents is no simple task. Plus, some new programs like aftercare will cost additional funds, and teachers should get paid extra if they work additional hours.

But the benefits of a redesigned school schedule far outweigh the costs. Public schools should stop operating under outdated schedules and instead establish policies that reflect the needs of the modern-day working family. Because families like mine just don't need any more headaches.