School re-openings across Canada allowed a torrent of parents to return to work, the strongest evidence yet of how critical childcare will be to a successful economic recovery.

Jobs data Friday showed 171,000 mothers with young children and another 47,000 fathers returned to work or found jobs in September. That represents the vast majority of all gains and brings employment levels for parents back to pre-pandemic levels.

The numbers validate the reluctance policy makers have so far shown to closing schools, even with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Instead, governments across the country are targeting sectors likes bars and restaurants for new restrictions to prevent the outbreak from worsening.

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The participation rate for women ages 25 to 54 climbed to 83.5 per cent in September, close to pre-pandemic levels and narrowing the gap with men, who have seen a faster return to employment, Statistics Canada said Friday.

“It’s going to matter a lot for keeping moms at work through the fall,” Tammy Schirle, an economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said by phone. “If something happens, such as we have to close schools, you can imagine this quickly reversing, where moms are going to have to pull out of the labor force. Or dads, depending on individual circumstances.”

Most schools across the country were ordered closed in March when the virus first hit. Provinces cautiously re-opened them this fall, with new measures to ensure social distancing. With the economy now entering a slower phase of growth, keeping kids in class and allowing parents to return to work could help the recovery keep grinding forward.

Employment in education rose 68,300 in September, and is the only sector to see actual gains in hours worked since February.