How Our Current School Calendar Penalizes Working Families

Some of my fondest memories are of summer vacation: no school, playing in the sprinklers at the playground, going to the beach with my parents and summer camp. Glorious. But since becoming an adult (boring!) and having a kid of my own, I dread summers.

Yes, the weather is nice and it's vacation season. But it's also the season of little-to-no child care options – so, for working parents, the summer is more of a scramble than time off.

For example, as I was writing my column about Hobby Lobby on Monday, I also had to take care of my toddler daughter, Layla: her father works in an office, her grandparents were doing work of their own, and camp is just too damn expensive to pay for all summer long. So I had to stop typing every five minutes or so to get Layla juice, make sure she was playing nicely, set her up with a different activity to keep her busy. But I'm ridiculously fortunate, as I can work flexibly from home – a privilege not afforded to most parents.

The current American school calendar – multiple holidays and teacher conferences, school days ending at 3pm and two to three months off for summer break – is based on the outdated presumption that one parent (or caretaker) doesn't have a full-time job. But while the social expectations behind the more-than-century-old calendar would have us believe that there is always one, gloriously fulfilled, stay-at-home parent (a mom, of course) to fill in those gaps, the truth is that most American families have two working parents, the majority of whom feel overwhelmed about juggling work and family life. And while, according to Pew, there's been a rise in stay-at-home moms and dads over the years, a good portion of those parents are actually living in poverty or stay home because they are unemployed.

A new study released around last month's White House Summit on Working Families showed that parents are so concerned about their ability to care for their children while meeting the demands of their jobs that 48% say they fear getting fired because of it.

Perhaps reforming the school calendar – with all its holidays and the whole summer off – should be considered in the larger activism around child care. A lot of work is done and articles written about paid parental leave, subsidized child care for children before kindergarten, and the importance of flex time – but not as much thought gets put in to how months off at a time for children impacts working families.

When we have conversations about work-family issues, would it really be so strange to include ideas for how to revamp the school year? Forty schools across the country are already part of a pilot program experimenting with a longer school year - with shorter, more frequent vacation time rather than one long stretch of summer break. The idea is similar to schools in Europe (where parents seem to have it easier generally) where there's shorter summer break in exchange for more time off for winter holidays, when employers already offer added flexibility.

I hope my daughter loves summer vacation the way that I did. I do my best to make it fun for her – we send her to camp when we can, take off as much time as is possible and fill up her days with art projects and playtime that's fun for her and gives me a break. But on these beautiful warm days, I can't help but wish I was doing a little less juggling. Summer should be a fun time for parents, too – whether they stay at home, work, or do a little of both. Until then, you'll see me at my desk, looking wistfully at the sprinklers outside.


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