Last week, on the Facebook group Teaneck/Bergenfield Jewish Moms, which has almost 1,700 members, a single post garnered over 350 comments. Given our deadline it’s possible that another couple of hundred have been added since we went to press, but the general point has been made; A heartbreakingly familiar topic was broached and the answers addressed a significantly deeper question than the straight dollar cost, to a family, of Jewish day school tuition.
In many cases, the cost of day school is, in fact, Mom’s career.
A working mother posted a simple enough query: “Just curious.. how do moms hold jobs with this many days off and early dismissals? ...How are we supposed to pay for 3.5 kids if we can't go to work? Am I the only one who finds this unacceptable?”
According to an early commenter, the facts seem back up the statement. Public schools are required by law to be open for 180 days per year, while yeshiva day schools start at around 171. While some schools do actively work to cover no-school days for working parents in a variety of ways, others present no assistance at all. And I don’t have to discuss tuition’s high cost; everyone knows that a family has to be making what is generally more than two average American salaries to send their children to day school.
Now, to place this comment in context, a lot of us were really stressing out last week. All of us had a minimum of two days off in the middle of the week (three days off for Kushner!) due to a rare March snowstorm, so most parents had already missed 16 hours of a 40 hours work week. It likely didn’t help that we’re still looking for the end of a particularly nasty flu and strep season. Then (in our vast abundant spare time, probably while cutting up more fruit for our darlings in perfect shapes, cleaning out drawers for Pesach or just stealing away a quiet blessed moment or two in the kitchen), everyone looked at their school calendars and noted that the following Tuesday was also, for several schools, set as an in-service day for teachers.
Tempers were high and the realization was made. When schools call a snow day, someone at home has to take a vacation day or make alternate plans. Let’s face it: it’s usually the mom. With many non-school or non-contract jobs only providing two weeks or less of vacation each year, and with most of those days eaten up for Jewish holiday observances, we aren’t left with much. Plus, most schools close a full day before the chag even starts, thus requiring a parent to take off earlier than they would ordinarily.
Days of academic instruction being lost forever is also a concern, considering that the day schools aren’t accountable to the county or state and don’t make up days lost to snow days (public schools factor a few snow days in their school year, and make up more if necessary at the end to hit their 180 day total).
The post was then commented on by a great variety of professional women who addressed the question in many ways. There were scores of approaches and for the most part, the conversation was as honest as it was respectful. One of the early commenters shared that she had hired an au pair (who drives), another a live-in nanny (most of whom generally do not drive), while others said they were quite dependent on family members close by to help out with parenting on these off-days. Still others shared that they had quit their jobs or sought more flexible ones to be more available for their children, or chose jobs which allow children to be taken along to work. Still others noted that they specifically chose not to have more children because of the paradox of adhering to a yeshiva day school schedule while also moving up in a variety of professions. Others also were quick to chastise anyone for specifically blaming yeshiva day schools for the problem, which they noted, “is not childcare.”
One of the most fascinating responses was from a group of women who work in jobs that are considered “essential services,” meaning, for example, that they work for a utility company as an engineer, or as a lawyer/advocate for cities in emergencies. One of them illustrated the expectations she is held to by noting she was supposed to show up for work in the Bronx during Hurricane Sandy even though George Washington Bridge was closed. She added that she didn’t think her job prospects for advancement were helped by the lifestyle she has chosen, noting that more hours in her line of work translates to advancement. “The day school lifestyle is extremely stressful and my life is considerably more stressful than my coworkers. My co-workers who have kids in public school have their kids in aftercare and don't have as many days off,” she told me later.
Another parent, who works in a corporate job, shared that she has written an email to her school principal annually about the disproportionate number of school off days in relation to the corporate calendar. “This year, for example, there are 33 days off for holidays between the first day of school and the last day of school, in addition to three half days. This doesn’t take into consideration snow days or shows in school that start way too late to go to work afterwards, for each child. Then assuming a child goes to an eight-week camp (and sleepaway camps are usually 7.5 weeks), there are additional 10 or 11 days off between camp ending and school starting. Who has 45.5 vacation days????”
One idea brought up toward the end of the discussion was this: “What we really need is a community-wide back-up childcare solution. One central location that takes any yeshiva-aged kids on days the schools are closed but parents still have to work, such as professional development days. To keep costs affordable, seventh and eighth graders (who will also be off on those days) can help out (and in the process learn something and earn chesed hours).”
Another great idea mentioned by a mom from this group was to circulate a petition asking yeshiva day schools to adhere to 180 days of school, as per our state's public school standards, to ensure that students get at least the same number of days of academic instruction as other students their age.
Thanks, ladies, for a great conversation, and for planting seeds for a great idea or two (or more)! I can’t wait to hear more.