Study: Moms Are More Likely to Quit Work in States With Remote-Only School

tired homeschooling mom

A new academic paper provides more evidence the pandemic is taking a toll on women’s careers.

A team of sociologists found that more moms left the workforce in areas where schools offered primarily remote instruction.

Kelly Mann loved her job selling education technology for McGraw Hill. When the pandemic closed college campuses across the country, her services, onboarding new customers and teaching tech-challenged professors how to use the company’s math and chemistry virtual learning platform, were more in demand than ever. So were her services as a mom of three kids navigating their own remote learning issues.

“I was in Zoom calls with my video on, so I couldn’t say, ‘Excuse me, let me go help my child, who has been trying to log on to her class,'” she recalls. “It was kind of a job where I was on stage all day long.”

When her kids’ school district, Wake County, North Carolina, decided to go fully remote, “I knew there was no way that my children would be able to keep up with their school work and juggle their online classes without my help and support.”

So she resigned from her job and became part of a tidal wave of women who left the workforce in August and September 2020.

Now, a new academic study, which will appear in the journal Gender & Society this spring, suggests that many more moms left the workforce in areas where schools offered primarily remote instruction, like Kelly’s.

The paper’s researchers collected detailed data to measure the percentage of school districts with at least 500 students offering in-person, remote and hybrid instruction models for public elementary schools. Then, they linked that data with women’s labor force participation rates in each state, based on the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

Though they haven’t finished collecting data on all 50 states, the preliminary findings show that the gap between mothers’ and fathers’ labor force participation remained somewhat steady in states where students learned in person, either full-time or part-time. But it grew by an average of 5 percentage points in states where school was offered mostly online, such as California, Delaware and Virginia.

The results are more stark when looking at individual states. In Maryland, which reopened last fall with fully remote learning across all school districts, researchers observed the largest drop in mothers’ labor force participation. Moms of elementary-age school children were 16 percentage points less likely to be in the labor force during the first semester of the 2020 school year than during the same period of 2019.

Meanwhile, in New York, where 50 percent of school districts have offered a hybrid model and another 33 percent have opened with full-time in-person instruction, moms’ labor force participation fell by 7 points–meaning Maryland moms were more than twice as likely to leave the labor force as their New York counterparts.

“When school goes remote, mothers’ employment suffers because they pick up that extra labor at a larger rate than fathers,” says William Scarborough, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and one of the paper’s authors.

The same team of sociologists found in another study published last year that in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father were continuously employed and had children under 13, mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers from February to April 2020.

Experts have warned that this growing gap in work between mothers and fathers risks setting women’s advancement back by decades. More than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since February 2020, and in January 2021, the women’s labor force participation rate fell to 57 percent, the lowest it’s been in 33 years, according to analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.

Since gender differences in work hours are a major reason for the gender wage gap, and periods of non-employment can have negative consequences on occupational mobility and future wages, “this all suggests that the negative effects of COVID-19 and school closures on gender inequality may be felt not only now, but well into the future through worsening gender wage gaps and disparities in occupational mobility,” Dr. Scarborough warns.

Kelly, who is applying to private schools for her children for the fall, plans to start searching for a new job soon, but she’s afraid she won’t be able to find work at her previous career level. “I think I’ll lose some of that seniority and likely salary as well,” she says. “The job opportunities for a female in her late 40s are slim.”

Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the NWLC, worries there aren’t enough high-quality jobs available right now–a scarcity that will get worse when vaccines are widely available and the four million people who have left the labor force begin looking for work again. “I think women are going to apply for jobs and take the first offer that comes along because they won’t be able to afford to wait–the wage gap has already robbed them of the chance to use savings to bear this crisis out,” she says. “Lots of women are going to piece part-time jobs together, they’re going to re-enter the workforce at a lower level than they left and they are going to be dealing with the impact of that for years to come.”

Kelly is now leading a group of about 6,000 parents in Wake County, which encompasses the city of Raleigh, in an effort to reopen the area’s schools. (Children in kindergarten through third grade currently attend full-time in-person.) She is one of many parents in school districts across the country petitioning local leaders to reopen school buildings, but the debate has become fraught due to its inherently high stakes. Teachers have expressed concerns about the safety of in-person learning given America’s inability to get a handle on the virus. Parents who favor in-person classes point to a growing consensus among doctors and infectious disease experts that schools can be safe with mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing.

However, the new paper does provide a nugget for policy experts to ponder: Getting moms back to work isn’t necessarily as simple as throwing open the school room doors. It might also require convincing parents that schools are safe. Interestingly, in Texas, a state where more than half of school districts offered their elementary students a full-time, in-person option (55 percent), mothers’ labor force participation fell by about 10 percentage points. That could be because many families opted to keep kids home even when school buildings reopened. “So, while in-person schooling theoretically provides the support for mothers to remain employed, there still exist major concerns that impede families’ taking advantage of this resource,” Dr. Scarborough says.

He is careful to point out that the intention of the study is not to make a case for whether schools should reopen to in-person instruction, but to raise awareness of the social costs of schools going remote.

“The decision over schooling models requires a holistic look at health, social and economic factors. We don’t cover all those aspects–that cross-cuts a wide range of expertise beyond sociology–so we don’t make any arguments either way,” he explains. “However, we do believe that it is extremely important to raise awareness of the toll remote schooling is having on families and mothers in particular.”

Raising awareness is the first step, he says, and next is holding business leaders accountable. “Workers need flexibility during the pandemic. Work expectations need to also acknowledge the tremendous caregiving load families are now under,” he says. “If workplace managers are not cognizant of these dynamics, caregivers (mostly mothers and women) will be treated unfairly and workplaces may miss out on retaining highly-skilled workers who leave due to the incompatibility of workplace and family expectations under the pandemic.”

And it doesn’t just impact individual companies when moms leave their jobs. Many economists have issued warnings that a full economic recovery depends on getting parents back to work. Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, says in addition to safely reopening schools, it’s going to require increasing child care capacity (since many daycares have closed their doors since the beginning of the pandemic) and making schools more accommodating of working parents, with before and after care available.

Tucker agrees. “If history has shown us anything, it’s that women are resilient,” she says. “They’re going to reclaim their pre-pandemic participation rate, but the question is how long it will take them to do it. Without real investments in our failing child care infrastructure, for example, it’s going to take longer.”


A new academic paper provides more evidence the pandemic is taking a toll on women’s careers.

A team of sociologists found that more moms left the workforce in areas where schools offered primarily remote instruction.

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