It was the news that parents had been waiting to hear for more than a year and a half: on Monday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective for children aged five to 11. The pediatric dose, administered at one-third the volume of the adult dose, creates a “robust” immune response that is predicted to protect child patients from severe disease and death from Covid. Crucially, the trials, in which the vaccine was administered to 2,268 children, found no cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that is a very rare but serious side-effect of some mRNA vaccines in adults. The companies are requesting emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) and if the FDA moves at the same pace that it did in granting emergency approval for the adult vaccine, that will mean that vaccinations of school-aged children could begin as early as Halloween – though logistical and political obstacles could still delay the shots.
The announcement is a light at the end of the tunnel for parents, who have seen their children’s lives unfairly warped by the coronavirus pandemic. Schools were closed, activities were shuttered, and opportunities to visit relatives or play with other kids were suddenly fraught with risk. During the long wait for child vaccinations, the commentary on the urgency of vaccine development has rightly focused on the pandemic’s devastating effects on children – medical, educational and developmental.
But the prospect of child vaccines also offers much needed relief for the adults, most of them women, who are tasked with caring for children: teachers, childcare workers and, above all, mothers.
The ability to vaccinate kids, and the hope for more regular and dependable schooling and childcare that it brings, could be tremendously meaningful for women’s equality. Women were economically devastated by the pandemic, and childcare responsibilities were a big part of why. With schools and daycares closed, and female-dominated sectors like the service industry hit especially hard, women were forced out of their jobs at a disproportionate rate between February 2020 and March 2021. An estimated 1.8 million women dropped out of paid work during that time, erasing, in just one year, 30 years’ worth of women’s gains in the workforce.
In December 2019, before the pandemic struck, researchers found that women held a slim majority of the nation’s salaried jobs – 50.04%. It was the first time in history that women were the majority of the workforce. But in March and April 2020, about 3.5 million mothers of school-age children left paid work. Many have returned to work since. Others have not. At the beginning of 2021, there were 1.4 million fewer working mothers than there were at the beginning of 2021.
Of those who did not leave their jobs, the pandemic placed huge childcare responsibilities on parents, particularly mothers, that drained energy and focus from paid work. Blue-collar workers missed shifts and scrambled to find childcare for the hours they had to spend on the job. Meanwhile, many white-collar workplaces responded by adjusting their workplace cultures – making hours more flexible, allowing breaks for childcare, and becoming accustomed to toddlers wandering in the backgrounds of Zooms. But these adjustments, welcome as they were, were not enough to alleviate the added stress placed on mothers who continued to work for pay while also supervising children round the clock. Many women who did not leave the workforce found that they still fell behind.
Women’s economic losses are not just a matter of stalled individual ambitions. They have broad social implications. Women’s incomes are essential for the economic security of their households. A study by the Center for American Progress found that in 2017, before Covid, 41% of women were the sole or primary breadwinners in their families. Their retreat from the paid workforce has contributed to the economic downturn nationwide. And in individual families, a mother’s paid work often has benefits beyond the financial. It also has the ability to foster gender equity within the home. Women who earn their own money have more influence over household decisions, and have more ability to leave relationships that turn unhappy or abusive.
There is some evidence, too, that children raised by working mothers benefit psychologically from their moms’ independence. A Harvard study showed that children raised by working moms are just as happy in adulthood as children raised by stay-at-home mothers, and that women whose mothers worked while they were growing up perform better in their own careers. But with the pandemic-induced childcare crisis closing schools and unvaccinated children under their mothers’ care for greater and greater swaths of the day, much of these advantages were lost.
Much of this was supposed to be alleviated at the start of this school year, when many schools finally reopened for full-time, in-person classes. But with no vaccines available to children under 12, elementary and middle schools remained vulnerable to infection. Outbreaks and quarantines have been frequent. Even in those lucky districts that have been able to institute safety measures such as social distancing, improved ventilation and mandatory mask-wearing, schools have still posed some risk: after all, with children under 12 still unable to access the vaccine, schools are indoor gatherings of large numbers of unvaccinated people.
The inability to administer vaccines to children has made schools, as childcare, both risky and unreliable. Parents must send their kids there, knowing the risks but also knowing that if they do not send their kids to school, they will sacrifice both their children’s educations and their own livelihoods. But because of the frequency of outbreaks, some families find that their children are sent home anyway.
Teachers and childcare workers, who are overwhelmingly women, find themselves in this bind, too: they risk both exposing their own kids to the virus in schools and daycares, and being exposed themselves. The risks of exposure to the virus in rooms full of unvaccinated kids has made childcare centers even more expensive and even more difficult to staff, as many workers calculate that the money they earn taking care of children does not justify the risk to their health. That, too, forces more women out of the workforce.
It will take more than child vaccinations to reverse the trend that has forced women out of paid work. A long-term vision for women’s economic equality will require paid leave policies, more robust equal pay measures, universal childcare, enforcement of laws against sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination, and many, many more unions. But the prospect of vaccinated kids is welcome news for women workers who have been saddled with a dangerous and unjust double burden of work and childcare, without sufficient support for either. Hopefully now, with kids’ shots on the way, working mothers can breathe a little easier.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist