How Keeping Schools Open Helped French Women Return to the Workplace

PARIS — After France emerged from eight long weeks in COVID-19 lockdown last May, with all “non-essential” shops closed and residents required to fill out travel certificates to leave home, it’s hard to imagine that a second round of confinement could be more palatable. But the lockdown that began at the end of last October was actually far easier for many French parents.

During the first lockdown, all French schools and day care centers closed. Tatiana and her husband, Alexander, who both have full-time jobs, split caring for their 2-year-old son during the day and worked remotely late into the night.

“Alex and I barely saw each other, even though we were living in the same apartment,” says Tatiana, 32, who along with her husband wished to be identified only by their first names. “We had no down time whatsoever. It was exhausting, and we were completely burnt out.” Tatiana, who works in private equity and lives in Paris, eventually asked her sister to move in with the family to assist with child care.

Research suggests the first French lockdown hit working moms especially hard. A survey last May of 34,000 people by the French General Confederation of Labor union (CGT) found that 43% of mothers said they were responsible for at least four additional hours per day of parental and domestic chores. An April 2020 study commissioned by the French Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity, and Equal Opportunities found that women spent 2 hours and 34 minutes on daily household chores versus 2 hours and 10 minutes for men.

Noting the impact of school closures on children and working parents, last April 13 French President Emmanuel Macron made a controversial decision: to reopen schools and day care centers starting in May. Since June, in-person school attendance in France has been mandatory.

The decision was a lifeline for working parents, particularly moms, during the second round of lockdowns, which ended in late November. “We were able to work normal hours with our child being taken care of during the day. It was actually nice, because without having to commute we spent more quality time with our son,” Tatiana says.

The French decision to keep schools open is controversial, with COVID-19 cases rising again in January and remaining elevated since. But it may have also helped prevent many of the inequalities experienced by working parents and particularly mothers in other countries, some of whom have been forced to choose between their careers and caring for their kids.

How Coronavirus Has Impacted Women in the U.S. Vs. France

Unemployment due to the COVID-19 fallout has hit workers worldwide. Although working women in the U.S. have been hit harder than men, the same doesn’t seem to be true so far in France.

Unemployment rates for both French men and women remained relatively stable in 2020. In total, employment fell by 0.2 percentage points for men and by 0.3 percentage points for women, according to an analysis by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE). Labor market participation increased 0.3 points over one year for men and 0.2 points for women, in part thanks to a partial-employment program that enabled French businesses to keep workers on their payroll on the government’s dime. “We did not see much difference between the impact on the employment rate of men and that of women,” says Vladimir Passeron, head of the employment and earned income department at INSEE.

In the U.S., unemployment rates were roughly equal for women (6.4%) and men (6.3%) as of January 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, labor market participation fell significantly more for women than for men: An analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that 865,000 of the 1.1 million American workers who dropped out of the labor force (or were unemployed and not looking for work) last September were women. These losses were particularly important for Black women and Latinas. In all, the NWLC says that nearly 2.2 million women left the workforce between February and November 2020.

The conflicting roles of parent and worker appear to play an important role in this disparity. An analysis by the nonprofit policy think tank the RAND Corporation noted that U.S. labor force participation rates have dropped much more among women with children (3.18% in September 2020) compared to women without children (1.12%) and men with and without children (1.79% and 1.72%, respectively).

A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonprofit research organization, concluded that the pandemic has been harder on American women in part due to school and day care center shutdowns. The NBER notes that because mothers are more likely to earn less than their partners, they tend to be more likely to quit their jobs when child care demands become impossible to meet. Single mothers, many of whom don’t have the option of splitting childcare with a partner, are particularly hard-hit.

The Decision to Keep Schools and Day Cares Open in France

A key to the different experiences of women in the U.S. and in France may be child care access. French parents have been able to send their kids to school and day care throughout most of the pandemic, while many schools across the United States have remained largely closed to in-person learning.

A main driver for the French government: to get parents back to work. Last April, French government ministers highlighted how reopening schools would address the economic inequalities created during lockdown by enabling parents to return to work.

President Macron’s April 13 speech announcing the end of lockdown and the gradual reopening of schools “was interpreted by journalists as direct willingness to set parents free again to work,” says Henri Bergeron, a sociologist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), the director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and a co-author of the book, “COVID-19: An Organizational Crisis.”

“His argument was really a question of social justice. Lockdowns especially affect poor people … and certainly [have] a gendered effect, as well,” says Bergeron.

Although the main goal of school reopening was to guarantee access to education for all children, the government studied and considered the impact of various COVID-19 measures on women, explains a spokesperson from the French Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunities. During the first confinement, “women were at the forefront of the crisis for their role within the family structure,” the spokesperson says, noting that school closures forced women to juggle work and personal responsibilities and adding that domestic violence increased by more than 30% in France during that period. “The decision to reopen schools and nurseries has given parents the opportunity to return to work and, therefore, alleviate the double day for mothers,” says the spokesperson.

French parents and teachers were initially wary about schools reopening, but some research backs the strategy’s safety. A June 2020 study by the French Pasteur Institute concluded that school-aged kids appear to be far less likely to transmit the virus than adults. Another study commissioned by the French government came to a similar conclusion about kids in day care. And an August report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control found that evidence “indicates that closures of child care and educational institutions are unlikely to be an effective single control measure for community transmission of COVID-19.” Most evidence also suggests that kids under the age of 14 are less likely to get severely sick from COVID-19.

Not all researchers concur. A recently published Swiss study concluded that closing schools in Switzerland for two months last spring slowed the circulation of the virus by 21.6% — slightly less effective than limiting gatherings to five people (24.9%) and closing non-essential businesses like bars and restaurants (22.3%).

Choosing to Keep Schools Open, For Now

As cases began skyrocketing across Europe last October, the French government shuttered bars, restaurants, and gyms but ordered schools and day cares to remain open with sanitary measures in place. A curfew and other restrictions were imposed going into the end-of-year celebrations; daily confirmed cases dropped from around 50,000 per day in late October to roughly 10,000 daily in early December. As of early January, only two schools were closed nationwide due to COVID.

Yet with about 20,000 new daily diagnosed COVID-19 cases in France since early January, there’s speculation of a third lockdown in parts of the country on weekends. The French national public health agency has also recently noted a greater increase in the percent of positive COVID-19 tests in kids under the age of 9 compared to the general population, which may or may not be linked to the return to school.

The strategy may change with the circulation of the new coronavirus strain from England. On Jan. 14, the French health minister, Olivier Véran, announced that more than 1 million students over the age of 6 and teachers would be tested every month for the coronavirus. The measure was implemented due to the circulation of the new virus strain, which “does appear to be more contagious in children … without there being more serious cases, at least proportionately,” Véran said. In England, schools have been closed to in-person learning, with the exception for children of critical workers, since the start of January. After weeks of lockdown, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to outline a plan for reopening schools as a priority beginning on March 8.

In France, government ministers maintain that their goal is to keep schools open, monitor for the English variant, and deploy testing and stricter sanitary measures. In late February, the French minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, reaffirmed to Le Figaro newspaper that the government’s priority is to keep schools open and added that by mid-March, the state plans to deploy 300,000 new COVID-19 saliva tests per week to students nationwide to help identify and isolate potential outbreaks.

“France has made the choice, which not only I validate but of which I am proud for my country, to maintain the education of our children,” Véran told Europe1 journalists on Jan. 10.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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