Administrators and faculty members are once again beginning a new fall semester -- a semester like no other, with a wide variety of forms of teaching, socially distanced classrooms, masks and PPE, hybrid models, testing and contact tracing, and grab-and-go dining. For tuition-driven, residential institutions desperate to retain current students and to meet expectations for the entering first-year cohort, the call for faculty to engage with students is greater than ever before.
Yet despite all the back-to-school preparations, few plans address the childcare and other caregiving needs of the faculty and staff members who have been juggling such needs since campuses closed down in March. All of us have faced challenges, but those managing the professional demands of the pandemic while caring for children and other family members have had a much greater burden
As businesses and colleges reopen, the demand for safe, reliable, flexible childcare is intense. A recent survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center indicated that 60 percent of licensed childcare centers closed in March, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children found only 27 percent could survive closure of more than a month without large-scale government assistance. In Florida, that's a potential of 56 percent of childcare facility spaces. More recently, 40 percent of providers say they will have to close without public assistance, due to the increased costs and lower enrollments during the COVID-19 pandemic now.
Many programs have reopened, but at reduced capacity, and they are struggling to afford cleaning supplies and salaries on reduced enrollments. Parents of infants and toddlers hesitate to send their children back to group care, where health guidelines may not be certain. For elementary-aged students, there is a surge in enrollment in virtual school, but this disproportionately favors families who can have a caregiver stay home and supervise young learners, as well as those with adequate technology at home. Women are responsible for much of this care work, and low-income staff and people of color also are disproportionately burdened by it and are more likely to be in jobs that allow for less flexibility.
We are three faculty colleagues at Rollins College, a small liberal arts college in Florida, and our dean of faculty asked us to look into the best practices for accommodating higher education employees with care responsibilities during the COVID-19 crisis. After reaching out to colleagues at our institution and others, we found that many ideas were being proposed but few actual promises or policy changes were being enacted.
With the aim of bringing more attention to what could well be a coming crisis, and with the hope of encouraging real action on the part of colleges and universities, we share these ideas. Women’s and gender studies departments have been especially active in advocating for faculty and staff, and we are grateful for their ideas that we share here. Many of these proposals are suitable for both faculty and staff members, and we encourage administrators to make these policies as equitable as possible.
Make Time and Space for Care
- Press pause on nonessential service obligations. Curriculum reform is important, but it should not be a priority this year. When we continue with nonessential service and meetings, we disadvantage colleagues who have to take time away from the core responsibilities of teaching and research to do care work.
- Adjust faculty and staff times of contract obligation. Many of us are on nine- or 10-month schedules. When possible, shift those schedules to give leave or shorter hours when needed, rather than next summer.
- Evaluate teaching loads and student enrollments. Make sure that they are fairly distributed across the faculty. Newer, tenure-track faculty (also more likely to have small children) shouldn’t bear the disproportionate amount of larger service courses.
- Allow flexibility for asynchronous teaching, virtual meetings and work-from-home as much as possible. Allow for nonstandard work times without repercussions in terms of contract or promotion. This flexibility also will probably help students with caregiving responsibilities.
- Make emergency extensions to leave policy. Many women have already used their family leave or sick time for the normal caring needs of pre-COVID life. Add other caregiving needs to the list of permitted leave, including the COVID-19 illness of a family member.
- Make office space available. Caregivers often don’t have the uninterrupted space and time at home they need to do their work.
Help Us All Help Each Other
- Facilitate cooperative care efforts among faculty and staff members. Those might include, for example, a pair and share childcare system with one or two other families or a shared bank of part-time caregivers.
- Recruit faculty and staff members without current caregiving needs to help. They may be interested in virtually engaging with their colleagues’ young children for an hour or two each week -- reading books or teaching a second-grade math lesson -- in order to give caregivers a break.
- Create sick-leave banks. Such arrangements would allow faculty and staff to share extra sick leave or part-time options with those who need it.
Reallocate Resources for Caregivers
- Make care subsidies available. Repurpose funds where possible from faculty research, travel and other budget lines that will go unused during the pandemic.
- Dedicate college resources to helping employees find care. Consider maintaining a list of available care providers who commit to testing, mask wearing and social distancing, or having an office or staff person who can help workers connect with such providers if children are sent home.
- Make short-term childcare space available on the campus. This might be a study nook or office where toys and a rocking chair are available, which could help staff members with less work flexibility fulfill their in-person work responsibilities while ensuring the safety of their children. Or it could be a room for supervision of older children engaged in online learning.
Provide Optional Extensions for Tenure and Evaluation Clocks
- Provide optional one-year extensions of tenure-review clocks. Make clear at the appropriate dean or provost level that the typical timetables and standards for performance reviews are not appropriate at this time.
- Suspend or modify student evaluations of teaching. Also suspend expectations for research productivity -- not just for faculty members who cannot conduct their research at the moment, but also for those who need to dedicate their time to the highest-priority tasks while balancing care demands.
Amplify the Voices of Caregivers
- Speak out. Encourage leaders to acknowledge caregiving as a legitimate problem -- and to show appreciation for the way that many of us have continued to serve our colleges despite these challenges. As one faculty member noted, “I would appreciate a strong statement from the administration acknowledging the reality of navigating caregiving demands and work responsibilities that so many of us are dealing with … to hear and believe that they truly get that these past months have placed enormous demands on working parents (and women in particular) and an acknowledgment that these demands are likely to continue. And also make it be known that they respect the fact that while managing all of these domestic responsibilities, we still are educating students, fulfilling our work responsibilities and serving the college community at the highest level, as we always do.”
- Educate others in the college community. At times, caregivers are invisible and dismissed by other colleagues who are not in the same boat. The strong support of college leaders will serve to show the importance and value of caregiving to those currently without such responsibilities.
- Ensure that caregivers are represented on the committees making decisions about teaching formats and obligations. Make sure to include people with young children or care responsibilities for seniors and other adults. Consider caregiving responsibilities as equivalent to health vulnerabilities when setting policies.
These ideas alone won’t fully resolve the impending crisis in care. Without greater public investment in children and care, most of what we can do are stopgap measures to make it through this time. But our hope is that by addressing and building care accommodations during the pandemic, we can set ourselves on track for a better care system once the crisis is behind us.