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Why Doesn’t My Kid’s School Day Run From 9 to 5?

You know, just like my workday

What’s the hardest thing about being a parent? Well, there’s the leveling up as a human to care for someone more than ourselves. The ungodly amount of snack preparation. The profound sleeplessness. And the insane vulnerability of caring for another person knowing you could fuck it all up.

But in reality, the hardest part to me so far, eight years in? Figuring out pre-care before school starts. Then aftercare once it ends. There’s also the three months in the summer. The weeks of winter break. The constant one-off holidays. Not to mention, all those staff holidays so teachers can train. The early dismissals on Tuesdays, or is it Thursdays? The early start times to accommodate some of those early dismissals, where a five-minute-earlier bell rings on the third Friday of every other week. Schools on average are closed for 13 days more than the average parent has the PTO to cover (not counting seasonal breaks).

So now she’s got a fever, and I was already trying to sit on my PTO to cover all the above? Boom.

A new bill in California, SB 328, proposes that schools start their day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The catch: That only applies to middle and high school kids. The other catch? It’s based on ample research that children learn better when they have more sleep and can start thinking later in the morning. Ergo, that’s great and all, but that means it won’t change elementary school start time, which means it doesn’t address the other terrible thing about the school day: That it doesn’t just start too early, it ends too early, too.

Because most schools run from around 8 a.m. to around 2:30 p.m., there’s still a full two hours at the end of the day that parents have to figure out, apart from all the other breaks. I don’t know about you, but most full-time jobs don’t fit neatly into an 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. block. Lots of jobs start before 8 a.m., so you have to figure out the care before the day starts, too. And unless you go out of your way to find a gig that’s part-time, flexible or very results-based — meaning, a job where as long as you get your work done, no one is mad at you — then you’re screwed.

Hell, you’re probably screwed anyway.

It’s certainly easier if you’re affluent enough that you can swing the added costs of covering this time by either hiring a nanny or finding a great afterschool program where the transportation is covered.

But you’ve still had to outsource the care of your kid during those critical after-school hours. That means it’s not you talking to them just after the school day, making that snack, watching those cartoons or helping with that homework. For older kids who might be left alone, your absence could be genuinely detrimental. Research shows that between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are the witching hours of bad influences. It’s when children are most at risk for getting into exactly the stuff of parent’s nightmares: Recreational drug use, sex, car crashes.

Given that it’s so hard to accommodate the school schedule, and so expensive, and so fraught, and so important, why the hell don’t we just make school from 9 to 5? Very smart people have been wondering exactly this for a very long time.

A recent piece at The Atlantic from Kara Voght wonders why we continue to keep this schedule when it creates a crisis for parents. Voght cites a slew of statistics that paint a bleak picture. In about 50 percent of married-couple families, both parents work. Of those parents, 70 percent work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 75 percent of women with kids in school work. But under half of public schools offer any aftercare program on site.

The problem is we’re still operating on a model from the 1900s. Voght explains:

The eight-hour American workday caught on in the early 1900s, after decades of pressure from labor unions urging corporations to do away with exhausting, backbreaking schedules. Yet the American school day never adapted to match parents’ schedules: On average, U.S. students are in school for six and a half hours, five days a week — with a two-month summer break and a smattering of other vacations. We owe that structure largely to 19th-century school reformers, who, seeking a standard school year nationwide, aligned the rural school calendar — which gave students the spring and fall off for harvesting and planting — with the urban one, which dismissed students during the summers so their families could escape cities’ oppressive heat. There’s been some variation over the years: During the first half of the 20th century, for example, schools experimented with summer sessions to accommodate an influx of immigrant children. But most school districts settled into today’s schedule by the 1960s, when only about a third of adult women worked and could be counted on to watch their children when the last bell rang.

Parents pay somewhere between $4,000 to $7,000 a year to cover that aftercare cost depending on the program. But even if you do have the money, that won’t buy you a slot. Many programs have limited space. A nanny works for some families, but they’re incredibly expensive. And even if you could swing paying someone to pick up your kid once a week for a few hours, good luck finding a nanny who wants that job. (They’re more likely to take the full-time gigs with guaranteed salaries, benefits and a consistent schedule — and who could blame them?)

So when families hit the painful spot in between — we don’t really have the money to cover this, or we didn’t get into the program that works for our location or needs — someone stands down or cuts back on work to cover it (typically the mother). Or a cobbled-together solution that relies on friends, family and alternating parents or older siblings, and leaves everyone stressed out and in fear of losing work or suffering in their careers.

The better answer, of course, is for us to catch up with the way work and family life has changed. The biggest obstacle to doing so thus far has been coming up with the cash to pay teachers enough to extend the day, or outsource that care to other providers. Though, that doesn’t seem impossible to overcome. One expert tells Voght that we could just finagle lunch breaks and recesses, or stagger teacher schedules to accommodate teaching throughout the day without increasing their actual work day.

But the sad truth is, so long as people are contorting to make an outdated system work, there’s no real impetus to change it.