It's arguable who takes more delight in seeing this school year end: my son or me. As the summer drew closer, our school routine began to fall apart. Any imagination I once brought to lunches disappeared as the weather warmed. The same applied to my oversight of homework. I even forgot about an erratically placed early-closing day, prompting a call from school – not a proud moment for any parent. These issues disappear in summer with his longer camp hours.
So when a heated debate erupted last week in the media, prompted by Princeton University Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic, one line caught my attention: "Make school schedules match work schedules."
Prof. Slaughter explained in " Why Women Still Can't Have It All" that a career in academia, although demanding, afforded her the opportunity to set her own schedule. When she moved to her dream job as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, the first woman to hold that role, she experienced what many already know: being at the mercy of someone else's work schedule as a parent raises many hurdles.
The overall tone of the article suggests that society needs to change to accommodate women's advancement, but to what degree does that include the education system? School schedules reflect an outdated agrarian society, the piece noted, or at least one in which stay-at home mothers were the norm. That model no longer exists, certainly not in downtown Toronto where I live.
The discussion about extending school hours continues, with U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed the idea which will materialize this fall for many Chicago students. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron launched a commission that will, in part, explore the idea of extending school hours.
For the many working parents I know, traditional school hours mean constructing a duct-taped solution of nannies, after-school programs and the support of friends and family. If one part of the child-care house of cards shifts, it can wreak havoc.
"I often feel that the school system still believes that every mother is a stay-at-home mom," said Cheryl Kim, an account director with Edelman Public Relations in Toronto and the mother of 10-year old twins.
"It shows in the short notice that we receive about special assemblies, the timing of school events in the middle of the day, the way kids are asked to wear a special colour of shirt the very next day – inevitably, the colour my kid doesn't have," she lamented.
Ms. Kim stayed home with her children until they reached Grade 1 and loved volunteering at the school. She believes it's great that parents are made to feel welcome in schools, but notes that they often get little notice for school events and end up disappointing their children if the parents can't make it.
Extending school hours carries a cost not only to taxpayers, but also to teachers. But the discussion may give rise to alternative solutions to help parents manage their multiple obligations. Academic experts can decide how to creatively spend the extra time, which need not be focused on conventional instruction. I would even take delight in an additional half hour of recess to break up the day.
Admittedly, finding school hours that sync with the modern work force will only become more challenging with many parents working a variety of shifts.
"The reality is that many parents do not work the traditional nine to five, and no matter the hours of school, arranging child care is a challenge," said Kelly Ann Heaney, an Ontario teacher and the mother of four boys.
Even if schools offered extended hours, there is a chance the approach could backfire, leading to further work-life balance issues. Julia Richardson, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at York University's School of Human Resource Management, compares it with Sunday shopping. Although stores stay open longer, allowing more flexible shopping time, the extra opening day affects families.
"In the old days, when shops were closed on a Sunday, it was far easier, I would argue, for families," said Dr. Richardson, adding that women are more likely to be in retail and teaching jobs, for that matter. She recounts a recent trip to New Zealand, where stores closed around 6 p.m. except for one night of late shopping a week.
"It was amazing, speaking to women working in those stores, how much better they coped," Dr. Richardson said. "I told them about shops being opened in Canada till say 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. five nights a week, and they said they wouldn't be able to cope with the demands on their family," she added.
Selfishly, Sunday shopping and late store hours work wonders in my schedule, especially when it includes a last-minute dash to purchase a must-have art supply. With the start of the summer holiday, I now have 10 weeks separating me from the demands of primary school.