The impact of COVID-19 on academic parents will linger long after the pandemic ends. These changes will, on balance, be positive.
In thinking about the future of academic work/parenting balance, it is useful to ground this story in the pre-COVID reality. And the story is not a pretty one.
Higher education, as a whole and on average, has done a lousy job of supporting faculty and staff who are parents.
How many colleges and universities offer quality, affordable and available on-site childcare?
How many higher education jobs, both faculty and staff, can accommodate both career progression and the need to care for young children?
While there are notable exceptions, most colleges and universities still fail to offer adequate parental leave at the birth of a child. Pre-COVID, most higher education employees needed to make individual arrangements with their supervisors or HR departments to gain approval for flexible work schedules to accommodate their parenting responsibilities.
There was little in the way of established policies to support parents, and still less of an academic culture that could be described as pro-parenting.
As with most things in higher ed, the challenges that parents face in juggling careers and kids are made worse by the academic caste system. Parenting looks very different from the perspective of a tenured professor versus a staff member.
How might things change for parents in academia on the other side of the pandemic?
While some colleges and universities will revert to pre-COVID work/family cultural norms, many (maybe even most) will not. The necessity to work from home has erased any separation between the employment and the domestic spheres. Today, there is a widespread understanding that parenting will bleed into work responsibilities.
Everyone is doing all they can to get through the day and to make it work as well as possible for their job and their kids. We are far removed from the realm of high-performance workers and perfect parents.
In reality, colleges and universities had no choice but to be as flexible as possible with their employee parents. Young children and school-age kids were not going to magically disappear to allow their parents to do their work. Kids are a fact of life.
If schools wanted their best people to continue working, they needed to accommodate (or at least not make more difficult) their employees' complicated lives.
Once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, will the flexibility and autonomy that academic parents (particularly staff) have had to exercise during the pandemic continue?
Again, this will not be universal -- as you should never underestimate a university's ability to make dysfunctional decisions -- particularly as it comes to employment. Over all, I think the post-COVID work/family balance will be better for academic parents.
I wish that schools would come out of COVID with a commitment to invest the sums necessary in offering affordable on-site childcare and reasonable parental leave.
What will happen is that parents will have more degrees of freedom to set their schedules and to work remotely. There will be less concern across campuses of working during "working hours," as I expect the flexibility and autonomy that faculty and some staff have enjoyed will be extended to greater numbers of higher education workers.
I expect that the challenges of working in academia while raising children will become more visible, for both faculty and staff. Schools will do a better job of supporting parents and worry less about setting lowest-common-denominator work rules.
At least I hope that is the result.
For now, I've been enjoying seeing all the kids on Zoom meetings.