“We often think about this as a problem every family faces, and it just happens over and over again in this systemic way: The mother cuts back on her hours for when school is closed,” said Catherine Brown, an education-policy researcher at the Center for American Progress. “Why do we have a wage gap? Partially it’s because of this, I believe.”
Reorienting the school day to align it with the realities of the working parent isn’t unprecedented: During World War II, for example, schools introduced extended days to help mothers who had been unexpectedly drawn into the workforce. And 3,700 schools—4 percent of all public schools—have opted for a year-round calendar that helps, at the very least, address the child-care problems posed by months of summer vacation.
Extending the school day is a lot harder than it seems.
But several barriers exist to making this happen uniformly—most significantly, the cost. Extending the traditional six-and-a-half-hour school day to match the eight-hour workday would add more than a current school day’s worth of time to a teacher’s work week. Even a decade after the recession, some schools are still operating with a “poverty mentality,” Brown said. “They don’t have enough money to pay for teacher salaries, but one of the ways they can reward teachers is with all of this time off and professional-development opportunities.” By 2016, 1,500 schools across the country had adopted “extended learning time,” lengthening the school day by up to 90 minutes. While these schools have reported improved academic achievement, they have struggled to financially sustain the hours permanently without additional tax funding or grant money.
To Brown, an optimal solution would relieve some of the burden from the school itself. “Schools could partner with the community, and programs could come in and take some chunk of the day,” she said. Instead of strictly defined before-, during-, and after-school time, Brown imagines a more fluid model in which peer-to-peer learning, longer lunch and break periods, field trips, community partners, and staggered teacher start times contribute to a longer, happier school day for everyone.
At the end of July, South Windsor town officials outlined a temporary solution that approaches some of what Brown envisions: Two local houses of worship offered their facilities as sites for an after-school program run by the local YMCA. For now, that’s taken some of the pressure off of parents, including the Wenzels, who have secured their son a spot in the 4th “R” after the new program led to some reshuffling.
But the short-term fix still doesn’t get at the root of the problem: the school schedule. So, for the foreseeable future, Christine Wenzel will continue to skip her lunch break so she can rush back to South Windsor and pick up Elliott from the after-school program before it closes for the day.