• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


COVID, Colleges and Kids

What's at stake.

November 20, 2020

The COVID surge is getting uncomfortably close to home. The Boy’s roommate at UVA tested positive a few days ago. The roommate subsequently went home, so now we’re waiting to see whether TB caught it. So far he feels fine, and the first test was negative, but this is not fun.

When it got as concrete as that, I quickly realized a few things.

For instance, when we talk about COVID at residential colleges, we assume that everybody lives on campus. But that’s not true. Even at many colleges for which people don’t live at home, they live off campus. When they live off campus, there’s generally no on-campus quarantine facility for them. If they have to quarantine, they do so by putting their roommates at risk. I’ll admit I was glad to hear that the roommate went home, only because every moment he was there endangered TB all the more. They shared a kitchen and an HVAC system. Had the roommate not gone home -- which was probably against protocol -- TB would have been stuck with a contagious roommate.

The university is asking students to leave Charlottesville for Thanksgiving and not return until late January. That conflicts a bit with the general “don’t travel for Thanksgiving” advice making the rounds this year. It also puts us in an awkward spot with TB’s travel arrangements. We aren’t sure when he’ll be safe to travel, assuming he continues to test negative.

Locally, some K-12 schools have announced closures for a few weeks. We also just had a major local hospital tell us it was canceling clinical placements for our students for a while; it’s just too overwhelmed with urgent cases, and it doesn’t want to become a hot spot itself.

Suddenly, we have parents trying to do their day jobs while managing 7-year-olds again. That’s not for the faint of heart.

When circumstances change this quickly, plans matter less and values matter more. Plans drawn up on Monday can be rendered moot on Wednesday when a school district, hospital or town decides to make a change. When decisions have to be made quickly, in the light of an abrupt external change, decision makers fall back on values. What matters most?

For me, it’s protecting children. If the K-12 schools aren’t allowing students to attend, then we shouldn’t require employees to attend, either. Their kids need supervision. For that matter, many of our students have kids in daycare or school; the same applies for them.

That’s not to say that asking moms to be superheroes is anything resembling a good answer. As Jessica Calarco has noted, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” As long as parenting and career success are opposed to each other, we can expect many couples to split the difference by recreating traditional gender roles. We already have copious data showing that far more women have either reduced their hours or left the workforce altogether than men since the pandemic hit, mostly driven by childcare. Getting to a place where people can be good parents and good workers and good partners all at the same time, without making themselves crazy, will require tremendous changes over the long term. But one step that leaders can take now -- and dads, I’m especially looking at you -- is taking parenthood into account when constructing work expectations.

Admittedly, I’ve been working that theme for a long time -- it was why I used “Dean Dad” as a pseudonym all those years ago -- but it’s still true; if anything, the need is greater now. The chronic issues of long-term wage stagnation and the cost of daycare are compounded now by the acute issue of COVID. We’ve essentially told parents of young children that they’re on their own. As a society, we’ve increasingly treated our young as nothing more than a private lifestyle choice. That’s a basic abdication of responsibility.

Long-term answers are inevitably political and therefore conflictual. But in the very short term, I’m asking academic leaders to put themselves in the shoes of working parents of young children. And for the love of all that is holy and good, we need to stop treating work/life balance as a women’s issue. As long as it’s defined that way, men are off the hook. We are parents, too; we need to own that, do that, and carry the awareness of that work into setting expectations at work.

A vaccine (or two?) will come, and it will help. I’ll be a lot more comfortable with TB being far away when he’s immune. But there’s a much larger issue here that won’t go away when COVID does. The good news is that we already have the vaccine for that. We just have to be willing to take it.


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