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MARTHA MUZYCHKA: Dread and this year’s countdown to school

Kids and parents cross the crosswalk.
School days were very different before COVID-19 than they will be this fall. — SaltWire Network file photo

We are five weeks away from the new school year. My own back-to-school memories are fond ones, both as a child and as a mother.

I was that child who loved the smell of new books, counted her pencils, delighted in reading the table of weights and measures on the backs of scribblers.

I worry about this year’s countdown. I think it won't be remembered fondly, but with dread. This doesn’t mean parents were worry-free in previous years, especially if your child was bullied, or has learning needs, or you’re trying to juggle complicated schedules.

This year is different because of COVID-19.

The pandemic has changed our lives, but one thing hasn’t changed: women are having to bear the burden of managing work on the home front.

The most recent Canadian census (2016) revealed some interesting data about how work is divided in homes headed by a male and female partnership (same-sex families were excluded from this component of the census). The data showed:

• Women and men roughly equally did the dishes, shopped for groceries and organized the family’s social life.

• Women were mostly responsible for doing the laundry (61 per cent) and preparing meals (56 per cent).

The pandemic has changed our lives, but one thing hasn’t changed: women are having to bear the burden of managing work on the home front.

• Men did the outdoor work and repairs (78 per cent).

• Only 11 per cent of couples said they equally shared work related to laundry, housework and cooking.

The census data showed when both partners are working outside the home, household tasks are shared more often compared to homes with only one partner working outside the home.

What’s missing from the latest data set is the division of labour for child care and general housework. Canada dropped the question on how many hours men and women spend doing these things after 2006.

Michael Haan, Canada research chair in migration and ethnic studies and academic director of the Statistics Canada Research Data Centre at Western University, says the difference between women’s hours and men’s hours “really jumped out.”

“Women are way higher on both of those measures. They’re taking care of the kids and they’re taking care of the housework more than the men are.”

It’s no wonder so many women feel tired, burnt out and wearied by constant decision-making. With COVID-19, though, there’s another critical factor — and that’s how women’s paid work is being affected.

U.S. media have published a number of commentaries about this, with many labelling it the “she-cession” and asking when the “she-covery” will come about. According to feminist Jessica Valenti, American women’s participation in the workforce has shrunk to 54.7 per cent, a level not seen since the 1980s.

In Canada, a million people lost their jobs in March and another 2.1 million people worked less than half their usual hours. The Globe and Mail reported that women lost more than twice the jobs as men while almost one-fifth of employed women lost all or most of their usual work hours in March, compared with 13.9 per cent of men.

The monthly labour market survey found that as restrictions eased in May, “a greater proportion of the employment losses experienced in March and April were being recovered among men (14 per cent) compared with women (5.4 per cent).”

It noted that for parents, higher gains were seen for men than for women by almost twice as much.

The last three months of school were challenging. The lack of clarity in the plan and the district’s decision to leave implementation to individual schools for September’s return is troubling. Not all homes or schools have equal access to resources to manage a safe and consistent transition to classroom learning.

Clearly, the pandemic approach to schooling is based on the same principles on which our snowstorm policy is founded. It assumes mothers will pick up the slack, as their jobs — if they have them — are less important compared to men’s.

We must do things differently.

Martha Muzychka is a writer in St. John’s. Email: socialnotes@gmail.com


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