Public K-12 schools are open now for the academic year, and instruction has returned to full-time in person, despite some disruptions due to outbreaks of the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant (Burbio School Opening Tracker). The anticipation has been that with schools reopening, women with young children—who have disproportionately dropped out of and remained out of the labor force since the start of the pandemic—will return to the labor force.  However, the small bit of evidence provided by the labor market data in September suggests that this is not the case, as the aggregate labor force participation rate roughly moved sideways and the rate for women ticked down. In this post, we speak to this question by examining the extent to which the switch to all-virtual and hybrid schooling during the pandemic impacted the labor force participation of women with young children.

We find that increases in the share of children in virtual or hybrid schooling in a given state are associated with decreases in labor force participation among women with young children in that state. However, the effects are modest. Moreover, in our data, remote schooling also depresses the participation of men with young children, all else equal, so it cannot entirely explain the relatively low participation of women with young children since the start of the pandemic. From a policy perspective these findings indicate that the reopening of schools will not be enough to return mothers’ labor force participation back to its pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, mothers, like women more generally, have faced many challenges since the onset of the pandemic. In particular, they were over-represented in the service occupations that were hardest hit when the economy shut down at the start of the pandemic, and as such, conditions related to the progress of the pandemic and the reopening of the economy will also play an important role in increasing their participation. More generally concerns about the progress of the pandemic are likely to be a continuing factor in labor force decisions, especially for parents with young children who cannot be vaccinated.

Traditional labor force dynamics will also slow the return of mothers into the labor force. Research shows that people who are out of the labor force have lower probabilities of transitioning into employment than those who are unemployed and that their return to the labor force often lags overall improvement in the economy. This occurs both because people who are out of the labor force make commitments that keep them out of the labor force (for instance deciding to stay home until a child starts school or entering school themselves) and because employers may be reluctant to hire those with gaps in their employment history or their networks may weaken.

Read the full article about female labor force participation by Stephanie Aaronson and Francisca Alba at Brookings.