COVID: The Impending Return to School and the Impact on Women
Updated: Jul 29
Let’s talk #COVID, return to school and the impact of the global pandemic on families. No one was spared impact as the world shut down, however studies are revealing that women have been disproportionately impacted which is leaving us on a slippery slope, risking the undoing of years of work in the gender equality space. The time has come for organizations and government to acknowledge this impact and proactively review policy to enable families, especially women to strike a balance while pursuing a meaningful career. In my opinion there are two key components to consider: a safe return to school and equalizing/ acknowledging the subsequent impact on women.
First, let’s look at a safe return to school. Ultimately, until kids return to school in a meaningful way, women are going to continue to bear the brunt of the juggling act that is working from home and parenting kids. However, when it comes to returning to school, both parents and educators are caught between a rock and a hard place here. We are all worried about health and safety first and foremost, but we’re also worried about mental health impacts, sustaining meaningful education for our kids and contributing to a viable economy where we can all work to support our families. Many parents and teachers are uncomfortable with the idea of returning to school with unclear plans, vague protocols for maintaining safety and undefined course of action should someone get sick. If a teacher gets COVID, is the entire class quarantined for 2 weeks and what does this mean for working parents? Full time school could mean full classes = no physical distancing, rotating classes = a need for part time childcare + increased contact exposure for kids and on-line learning = substandard experience and learning for the kids. Every scenario seems like a lose-lose situation. How can we expand the real estate afforded to education and invest more funds into teaching resources? Bring schools to church halls or community centres. Invest funds in hiring teachers that are newly qualified or looking for work. Smaller, safer class sizes = full time, effective education. Why has this proposal not been fully explored? Rotating schedules is NOT a solution. I am sure if the number of contact points based on this rotating schedule were modeled out it would be less safe than returning to the classroom full time. As a province and country we need to re-consider where our funds are most effectively used: $61.26B has been spent to date on CERB (I am not by any means suggesting we shouldn’t invest in small businesses and entrepreneurs just noting the spend), by early February, $7.1M had been spent on strike pay to parents, over $2 M since May has been spent in Toronto on homeless rehousing and let's not forget the latest Liberal scandal of the $912M contract awarded to family friends in the WE charity organization (that's for another blog). I am not saying these aren't worthy causes but rather where there is a political will there is a way and we need to put Education, our children and our teachers returning to school at the top of the list. Education impacts a significant portion of the tax-paying population, we pay education tax, yet it seems to be falling to the bottom of the list in terms of government funding during these trying times and expanding the gender and wealth gap.
In order to get started, let’s educate kids on proper hygiene and distancing practices and get them back to school in the safest way possible. Full time in smaller classes, utilizing extra space, more teachers and limiting contact points.
Next, the second and corresponding issue is the exorbitant amount of pressure this scenario is putting on women. During the week of March 15-21, employment dropped by 298,500 or five per cent among women aged 25 to 54, which was more than twice that of men. According to statistics Canada there has been a 17% drop in female employment compared to 14.5% drop for men. We recently conducted a literature review on this topic and the soundbites we took away were startling: “working moms being fired for being working moms” “parents unable to work from home will face a stark choice between their jobs and their children and that decision for the most part, be made by women.” “Even after decades of expanding economic equality, women typically are the ones to withdraw from the work force if child care is not available or affordable.” Women are feeling the pressure of choosing between their families health and safety and their economic survival. They are dreaming of back to school and daycare not because they feel it is safe, but because the alternative feels untenable.
McKinsey reported, “Given trends we have observed over the past few months, in a gender-regressive scenario in which no action is taken to counter these effects, we estimate that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector...Even before the coronavirus, our 15 indicators showed that tangible progress toward gender parity had been uneven and that large gender gaps remained across the world. Now, without intervention to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women, there’s a risk that progress could go into reverse.”
There are multiple factors impacting the gender disparity here, including the types of occupations we generally see women in. The Canadian Foundation of Women states that women are predominantly represented in roles in the 5 C’s: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning, which puts them squarely on the frontline, as healthcare workers (nurses, caregivers, doctors, teachers) or, in negatively impacted jobs such as flight attendants, cooks, servers, retail workers and cleaners. Add to this the fact that women have also absorbed the burden of taking on more of the house work, cooking, organizing, schooling etc. while trying to manage their own work schedules or searches. Women are drowning in responsibilities and need a lifeline to avoid sliding deeper down the slippery slope of gender inequality.
Let’s demand that our organizations and our governments wake up to the most pressing issues and stop relying on the backs of women to make things work in a situation that is no longer manageable for the vast majority. Rotating schedules will not work, but stuffing kids all back into the classroom won’t either. Time to think outside the box and invest, to get education back up and running. Let’s re-evaluate policies, find the money and get more space and teachers for our kids. Cut the fat and get funding where it is needed!