School closures keep over 28,000 Illinois moms out of work

School closures keep over 28,000 Illinois moms out of work

States that have re-opened schools have also increased labor force participation of mothers, evidence suggests.

The COVID-19 economic shock disproportionately affected women, but the lack of action to get schools re-opened kept more than 28,000 Illinois moms out of the labor force, data from the Current Population Survey confirms.

At the onset of COVID-19 and the state’s public health measures, mothers with children in the household exited the labor force at a higher rate than women without children. The combination of occupations that were deemed non-essential by public health officials, school closures and rising child care costs hurt mothers more, especially those without college degrees and minorities. The decline in labor force participation was the worst among Black women with children.

The extent of these harms varied greatly across states, with Illinois suffering more.

One month after the first stay-at-home orders, approximately 7% of prime working-age Illinois mothers, ages 25-54, were missing from the labor force because of COVID-19 and public health measures, compared to 5% on average across the country. This decline in labor force participation for working moms will have negative implications for their lifetime earnings and for the gender employment gap.

The lack of available work opportunities coupled with fewer schooling options for children forced many mothers to stay home. But even as the recovery was underway, Illinois lagged the rest of the country. Fewer job prospects and school closures in Illinois kept many moms out of the labor force. While some state leaders ordered schools to re-open, Illinois did not.

Research shows states where schools were ordered to re-open had higher labor force participation for prime working-age mothers than other states. This finding is particularly revealing because women with children had, on average, lower pre-pandemic labor force participation rates in these states. The findings suggest the failure to order a safe and timely re-opening of Illinois’ schools likely contributed to the much larger absence of working moms from Illinois’ labor force when compared to similar women in other states.

The lack of government action to order the re-opening of public schools has kept an estimated 28,227 moms on the sidelines.

Mothers disproportionately hurt by failure to order school districts to re-open safely

As of March 2021, 12 months after the first stay-at-home orders were issued, only four states had orders for schools to re-open: Arkansas, Iowa, Florida and Texas. Regression analysis shows that for similar mothers, labor force participation was 2 percentage points higher in those states than in the rest of the country (see appendix). This is despite the fact that their pre-pandemic labor force participation rates were on average lower when compared to states that did not order schools to re-open.

The results are consistent with findings from research published in Gender & Society. Researchers used data from the Elementary School Operating Status (ESOS) database and the Current Population Survey to show the gender employment gap between mothers and fathers in the labor force had grown significantly since the onset of the pandemic in states where schools only offered remote instruction. This is because mothers still bear the brunt of the responsibility for child rearing, according to data from the American Time Use Survey.

By April 26, 2021, nine more states had issued orders to ensure schools were fully open for in-person learning. Illinois wasn’t one of them.

The states where schools have been ordered to reopen include Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and West Virginia. Massachusetts and Arizona have re-opened some grades, but not all.

The delay in reopening schools is unfortunate because research has found that in areas where infection rates were under control, public school closures were unwarranted. The researchers found in-person learning had no effect on the spread of COVID-19.

For mothers across the country, approximately 43% of the labor force participation gap has been closed. Unfortunately, labor force participation for Illinois mothers has barely budged relative to levels observed at the beginning of the pandemic when job losses and unemployment claims were at an all-time high. Had schools re-opened throughout Illinois, the labor force participation of mothers would likely be 2 percentage points higher, partially closing the gender employment gap between men and women that was caused by the pandemic.

Even though the Illinois State Board of Education encouraged a return to in-person instruction and asked school districts to consider extending the school year to mitigate learning loss, only a fraction of Illinois school districts have decided to fully reopen schools for in-person learning. So long as schools aren’t available for in-person learning, working moms will be forced to choose between supervising and providing in-home schooling for their children or looking for work to provide for them.

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