School Is Not Daycare

I was surprised when a recent Atlantic article called “Why Does the School Day End Two Hours Before the Workday?” struck a nerve in me. The piece highlights the high demand and skyrocketing costs of after-school childcare, and queries why the school day hasn’t adapted to a longer schedule to reflect the reality of many two-working-parent households.

There are obvious reasons not to significantly extend the school day, one being that many students will be miserable and grow resentful of their time in school. Children need unstructured downtime and ample space to explore their own interests at their own pace. Plus, teachers already work into the evening hours even with afternoon dismissal times; a later end time would only push back their workday even longer.

While the article admits the costs of longer school days are prohibitive, and that there are many community-based programs that can step in to fill that gap, it glosses over one truth that should not be overlooked: school is not daycare, nor should it be treated as such. This mindset that conflates the two with each other is already poisoning our attitudes towards school and our expectations for teachers.

I taught high school English for ten years, including one when my son was in daycare while I worked full time, and have noticed the “school = daycare” mentality creeping into the education system, even at the secondary level I worked in. Increasingly, it feels that we perceive school as a place to stash the kids while we just try to get through the day. We aren’t appreciating the intricacies of the school day, the needs of children, or the optimal environments for student growth.

When we only fixate on how long the school day is, we risk neglecting the quality of that time. We seem to equate the length of the day with the amount of learning—“wow, Jenny was in school for 9 hours today, she must have learned a lot!”—when the reality is, sometimes it’s the time off school that gives developing minds the break they need to work better. There’s a reason kindergarten was originally designed to be half a day; kids are only able to focus on things for a little bit of time, and need to be able to explore on their own. When we base the kids’ schedule off our own though, we deprive them of this opportunity to learn in their best way possible, which may lead to more severe learning issues down the road.

To be sure, the problem of childcare in our country is huge right now. It is expensive, inconvenient, and frustratingly unreliable. But the solution is to extend maternity and paternity leave, encourage more flexible workplaces, promote healthy wage distribution, and change our mentality that kids (of a reasonable age) can’t be alone for even thirty minutes while their parent commutes home. We’ve unfairly expected schools to solve all of the rest of our society’s issues, and expecting the schools to fix this issue just isn’t going to work this time.

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