About Us

The after-school gap: A global perspective on parental struggles during back-to-school season

The after-school gap: A global perspective on parental struggles during back-to-school season

From “a Rubik’s cube” to “a rollercoaster ride,” parents can’t help but use a bevy of dramatic descriptors to describe how they tackle back-to-school season. For James Allen, a working father of three in Los Angeles, the transition from summer to back to school is like shifting gears in a manual car.

“It’s a delicate balance that requires precision and timing in our household, especially with three kids in elementary school,” says Allen. “The stressors are manifold — from adjusting to early morning routines, coordinating school drop-offs and pick-ups, to managing after-school activities. Even a slight misstep can cause everything to come tumbling down.”

For example, Allen recalls an instance when a work emergency coincided with an early school release. “I had to scramble to call a grandparent to pick up the kids while handling the work crisis,” he recalls. “It felt like trying to cook dinner with one hand while holding a crying baby with the other.”

He also remembers when an unexpected work meeting clashed with picking up his children from their after-school care. “I felt torn between my professional commitments and my responsibilities as a parent,” explains Allen. “It was a stressful scramble to find a solution, and it felt like everything was falling apart.” 

When it comes to feeling stressed by this annual transition, Allen is far from alone. By connecting with parents around the world, we found that there is a common pain point for parents: the after-school care gap that exists between the time kids are released from school and parents finish work.

Why we need to talk about the after-school gap

Parents are becoming all too familiar with the long, stressful delay of getting stuck on after-school program waitlists that are the result of high costs and staffing shortages. In turn, they’re being left to piece together multiple types of care to address the gap. For Allen, this tapestry of solutions is a combination of after-school programs, babysitters and a supportive network of family and friends.

In the U.S., the majority of families are juggling their careers and raising children: In 61% of married-couple families, both partners work. And nearly a quarter of American families are made up of single parents who are supporting their households solo. In either case, parents are faced with the same challenge as Allen — a gap between the time their child gets out of school and the time they wrap up their work day. That said, finding after-school care is an all too real and pressing concern for most parents. 

Plus, the after-school care gap doesn’t only fuel stress for families. It also has a ripple effect on workplace productivity and the greater economy. In fact, due to lapses in after-school care, parents can lose up to eight days of work and businesses can lose upwards of $300 billion a year.

It also bears noting that moms disproportionately shoulder caregiving responsibilities. If it hadn’t been made clear beforehand, the pandemic shed even more light on the downstream effect of child care shortages on women and the workforce. Women with children were significantly more likely than men with children to leave their jobs in 2020. Meanwhile, single moms who were unable to stop working were pushed to their limits, trying to find affordable care as thousands of daycares shuttered. As a result of women leaving the labor force, the economy has suffered, leading to GDP losses of $97 billion.

The effect of the after-school gap on children is also startling. According to the U.S. Chamber Foundation, one in five children are alone and unsupervised from 3-6 p.m., missing out on valuable learning opportunities, not to mention raising real safety concerns. 

How parents are juggling the after-school care gap

When you combine the disconnect between school and work schedules with the fact that numerous countries, including the United States, lack universal child care and face caregiver shortages, the result is inevitable: Families are left struggling with the after-school gap. And as the proverb goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” which, in this case, means parents have to get creative in order to create solutions that work for them. 

Most commonly, partners must work together to cobble together care, either between themselves or with various sitters and programs. 

Due to the exorbitant cost of after-school care, Sara Madera, a mother of two and career coach in New Jersey, and her husband made the decision to shoulder the responsibilities themselves. While her husband takes on the “majority” of child care duties, given that his day starts earlier and job is more flexible than hers, he does have to travel occasionally. “So, I have to ensure I block off my schedule to accommodate him, which can be difficult,” she notes. “And there are times that he has to work into the night to cover the hours he missed while watching the kids.”

Raising a child without a partner who can share the load, single parents face their own unique uphill battle when it comes to filling the after-school care gap. Maurizio Petrone, a father of one and CEO in Barcelona, says the back-to-school season significantly impacts his work routine as he tries to find balance between overseeing his team and being available for his daughter. For instance, her first recital last year coincided with a crucial project launch at work. Knowing how important the show was to his daughter, Petrone managed to plan ahead in order to be there for her. Despite the need to delegate tasks and leave work early, “her joy made it worthwhile,” says the proud dad.

Because Petrone’s work day doesn’t end until 5 p.m. and may even run later unexpectedly, he relies on daycare to bridge the gap. But he admits that the cost — $400 per month — is a major stressor. This expense compels him to push to work harder to earn more from his business. 

Some parents find the after-school care gap is extra difficult to manage when a solution they previously relied on changes or suddenly vanishes. That’s been the case for Bethany Braun-Silva, a mother of two in New York, who is most strapped for childcare between 3 and 6 p.m. and is on the hunt for a solution following a move to a new area and school that lacks an after-school program. Given that she and her husband both work full days, the logistics of getting the kids to and from enrichment classes is also a challenge. In turn, they are considering hiring a babysitter or figuring out how they might be able to transport their kids to enrichment classes themselves. 

Some parents are grateful to be able to lean on their village of family and friends to bridge the after-school gap. Simon Bacher, a father of two in San Francisco, relies on his in-laws to manage school pick-up and take care of his children until 7 p.m. Making matters easier: Bacher’s in-laws live with him and his wife. 

“Thankfully we have an extended family able and willing to help out,” he notes, adding that this is especially helpful when it comes to school drop-off and pick-ups and never having to worry about child care when the kids get sick. On the other hand, it has introduced “a new dynamic” into his relationship with his wife. “Having two other people to look after” can be a challenge, he admits. 

Nonetheless, Bacher knows that “it takes a village to raise a family.” “We’re grateful to have this strong family bond,” he says.

How can we close the after-school care gap?

Not long ago, it was inconceivable to think that the workforce would function in anything other than the traditional structure of a five-day work week where you left your home to go to work (unless, perhaps, you were self-employed). But the inconceivable in fact happened and we’ve had a paradigm shift to a world that now includes remote, on-site or hybrid work, and in some places, a four-day work week. Given the fact that an employee’s personal life inevitably affects their professional life and vice-versa, policies that support parents undeniably benefit business. With that in mind, it’s time to reimagine solutions for a challenge impacting the majority of families: the after-school care gap. 

While we collectively look for big new ideas, at Care, we see opportunities to better leverage systems already in place. For example, we advocate for increasing care options available to families through modernized childcare tax policy. By expanding the contribution limits to Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts and enhancing the Child Care Tax Credit, parents would face less financial burden as they search for reliable child care to fill the after-school gap.

Nationally, federal legislation (such as Congress’ increase in funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Center) and numerous state-level initiatives (like expanded funding for Alabama’s Afterschool and Summer Program and Michigan’s $50 million investment in after-school and summer programs) aim to connect parents with after-school care options and ensure caregivers are paid a livable wage. 

These initiatives are great starts but nowhere near enough. It’s time for outside-the-box thinking that finally looks at care for what it is: an economic engine. Closing the after-school care gap will ensure productivity and drive growth across industries. It will help close the gender equity gap. It will enrich our children and put them on a path to future success. And it will create meaningful good paying jobs for the caregiving workforce.

How many back-to-school seasons have to come and go before we finally realize that care can’t wait?