Schools Are Critical to a Gender-Equitable Recovery
By Lesley Lavery & Kristine Lamm West | December 14, 2021
In March 2020, COVID-19 pushed public school into living rooms and radically restructured family life and the teaching profession. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated long-simmering challenges for working families, and it also exposed and exacerbated existing issues in the teaching profession. Women bore the brunt of this dramatic change on both fronts.
Like other “caring professions” where frontline workers are disproportionately women, schools became a space where society was forced to confront and respond to the challenges and stresses of the pandemic as it unfolded. As we approach two years of COVID-19, the stresses remain, with added challenges around the politicization of masking, vaccinations, distancing and critical race theory. In order to address these overlapping challenges and ensure a gender-equitable recovery, we must invest in resilient schools.
An unprecedented disruption
Historically teaching was one of the only professions open to women and, even as women have made gains in other professions, teaching has remained very female dominated. In fact, evidence shows that women now make up a larger share of the teaching workforce than they have in decades. In 1980, 67% of teachers were women and in recent years that share has increased 10 percentage points. Teachers are also more likely to be parents—39% of teachers have children compared to 34% of demographically similar workers in other occupations. One hypothesis for why teaching has remained disproportionately female is that teachers’ schedules, by definition, align to the school day and school year, and thus teaching is a better option for women who are juggling the demands of work and family.
The pandemic upended this alignment. Virtual learning forced schools and families to confront, simultaneously, expectations of women as workers and caretakers.
COVID-19 laid bare the fact that schools are both places of learning where we invest in the human and social capital of the next generation and critical childcare institutions that enable parents, particularly women, to enter and thrive in the labor market.
COVID-19 laid bare the fact that schools are both places of learning where we invest in the human and social capital of the next generation and critical childcare institutions that enable parents, particularly women, to enter and thrive in the labor market. The pandemic also exposed the fragility of our patchwork of government sponsored early childhood education, expensive private daycare centers and informal childcare networks and what happens when care and schooling become uncertain.
From demanding to exhausting
Families and school communities breathed a sigh of relief as the 2020 school year trickled to an underwhelming conclusion, but the pandemic wore on. In fall 2021, many students across the country returned to their school buildings. But even for those families whose children returned to school full-time, quarantines and unexpected school closures continue to disrupt routines and employment. In the classroom, teachers have confronted the challenges associated with distancing and masking, and struggled to combine facets of the old “normal”—storytime, small-group instruction and intervention—with online support for the students who are sick or in quarantine.
If teaching virtual and in-person students hasn’t felt like two jobs, filling in for sick and absent colleagues almost certainly has. Substitutes are in short supply and, therefore, so are opportunities for reprieve from the physically and emotionally exhausting workday. Teachers attempting to enforce safety standards, address gaps in social development, and remedy academic loss have had to tread lightly through every lesson plan and activity. The politicization of curricula and the focus on racial trauma as teachers support students in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have added to teachers’ already full plates.
The politicization of curricula and the focus on racial trauma as teachers support students in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have added to teachers’ already full plates.
Teachers have stepped up to each challenge, but survey data suggest that the stress has taken a toll and 25% of teachers are now considering leaving teaching altogether. Teaching has always had very high levels of turnover—this is an example of a long-standing problem that the pandemic exposed. We will likely need a few years of data to sort short-run pandemic shocks to supply and demand from longer-running trends. On one hand, there is clear evidence that schools across the country are struggling with shortages of school staff—particularly support staff. On the other hand, recent reporting from FiveThirtyEight and the Fuller Project show that teachers have not quit in large numbers as some have feared.
The fiscal stimulus enacted in response to the pandemic included substantial grants to schools, so at least part of the story is an increase in demand in addition to pressures on supply. But, prior to the pandemic, urban low-income schools and rural communities struggled to recruit and retain teachers and during the pandemic these pressures have hit all communities more acutely. Areas with pre-existing shortages continue to experience disproportionate strain.
What do teachers and families need?
All of this suggests that both families and schools need help. Perhaps a permanent child-tax credit will empower women in the workplace—but not if the government fails to also invest directly in early childcare options and rethink our approach to caring for young school-aged children by better aligning the workday and the school day and providing more certainty and predictability in childcare. And while a massive cash injection for public education may help local districts piece together bus schedules and manage lunch lines, public schools’ front-line caretakers are telling us they need more qualified, trusted adults to create caring communities.
Teachers need better pay and teachers need school nurses, psychologists, social workers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitorial staff.
Teachers need better pay and teachers need school nurses, psychologists, social workers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitorial staff. Teachers need strong school leaders, reliable and collaborative colleagues, and a strong and qualified pool of substitutes. Teachers need parents and policymakers to partner with them to address losses and gaps, rather than force contentious debates to their overflowing plates. The stress of a caretaking role like teaching is cumulative. If we don’t rethink our expectations of mothers and teachers and take collective responsibility for what lies ahead, we’ll never build the schools students deserve.
COVID-19 has shown us how absolutely critical schools are to gender equity—both because of their role in enabling mothers’ work and as an employer of women—and our investments in the wake of the pandemic must reflect this.