'Babar in the Room'

Faculty parents are once again being asked to perform a miracle: Get their students and their own kids through the semester in one piece. Does it have to be this way?

August 11, 2020
 
Twitter/Andrew Wallace
Miriam Posner

Faculty members' anxieties about the coming semester abound. And while they may be able to rely on their institutions for support in matters of teaching, they remain very much on their own in dealing with the personal costs of the pandemic.

This fact is particularly searing to professors with young children: six months into the coronavirus's stranglehold on the U.S., babies, toddlers and kids are still out of childcare and school in many places. This means that professors are going to have to pull off the same miracle they did at the end of the spring semester at least one more time: shepherd their students through while simultaneously trying to manage their own children's schooling, meals, moods and more at home.

"It's insane that we're not having collective conversations about all the families that are facing this," said Maia Cucchiara, associate professor of urban education and school leadership at Temple University. "Universities are in crisis and even the universities that will make it through this are struggling mightily. So I'm certainly not saying this is a task universities should be taking on. But it is a task someone should be taking on."

Cucchiara's own two kids are teenagers already, so they're not in diapers, crying or asking for snacks in the middle of her Zoom meetings or remote class sessions -- all things that make the most unflappable professors sweat. But her kids have their own complex needs. One of their schools will be entirely online this fall.

As Cucchiara put it, "It's a psychic drain to watch your kids sit inside all day. Even if you have time to do your work, it's just deeply unsettling to know that even if your kids are fine, this is so not good for them."

Institutional Responses: The Good, The Meh, The Ugly

In the absence of meaningful national conversations about how to assist working parents, some institutions are trying to help. The University of Chicago, for instance, in April launched a virtual baby-sitting and tutoring program to support tenure-track professors in all fields and those of all ranks in the School of Medicine. The university hired a group of its students with experience tutoring and matched them with faculty families for online sessions.

"The university covers the cost of these sessions, which also provide employment opportunities for students," said Liv Leader, director of dual careers and faculty relocation at Chicago. "By surveying faculty participants, we've learned that these sessions are most valuable in helping faculty members get an additional hour or two of dedicated -- and ideally uninterrupted -- work time per day."

The number of sessions per week varies from family to family, Leader said, while the program has proved most useful to families with kids ages 5 and up.

Chicago plans to continue the program though the end of 2020. It also offers regular live and pre-recorded online story times, a Zoom support group for parenting during the pandemic and help with finding local caregivers.

The University of California, Los Angeles is also in talks with faculty members about how to help them manage their increased caregiving responsibilities. That effort grew from a petition from the campus's Center for the Study of Women, which says that their essential worker status coupled with the childcare and school vacuum leaves academic caregivers in an "impossible situation."

"Every day, newspaper headlines declare a 'childcare crisis' and, by extension, a career crisis for those workers who have been statistically shown to bear a much larger percentage of the burden of caregiving: women, people of color and those who earn a lower wage in their household," reads the petition.

UCLA, like many other institutions, has acknowledged these facts and told professors that related adjustments will be made to their personnel reviews. But echoing a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the petition says that these measures "eschew real policy" and instead ask professors to "rely on the good will of their department chairs and deans, in a way that leaves individual faculty members and instructors vulnerable to implicit bias, including sexism, racism, ableism and class-based prejudice."

As for real policy, the petition urges UCLA to ramp up a COVID-19 childcare support program addressing, "through a variety of creative and diverse solutions, the array of work-related impacts to caregiving faculty, graduate students, and staff as a result of closures of care facilities." The initiative would target those workers who find themselves with an increased, and at least 50 percent caretaking responsibility for one or more children under 12, children of any age with a disability or illness and an adult dependent with an illness or impairment. The program would be overseen by three to five members of the Academic Senate's Committee on Childcare/Faculty Welfare and other representatives.

Immediately, signatories want to see a minimum of $1 million from the university's Centennial Campaign made available to faculty members to offset any increased childcare costs related to social distancing and reimburse them for paying teaching assistants, readers or lecturers who have helped them keep their classes and families running, among other expenses.

The petition also seeks funding for support survey coordination and other task force needs, in order to set up private childcare "pods," field requests for assistance and other work. Signers want a waiver on non-essential service work and other professional timeline-related adjustments for faculty members who can't secure alternative care options for their dependents during the pandemic, along with program extensions for caregiving graduate students. They also want to be allowed to teach asynchronously and at home due to caregiving, via a broad policy that applies to graduate students, "without fear of repercussion."

Looking beyond the current crisis, the petition also seeks a continued effort to "identify essential strategies of caring," such as "support systems within departments but also across the university for parents, children, and volunteer or paid childcare workers." Ideas include a sick-day bank.

Rachel Lee, outgoing director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Women, said that when COVID-19 hit hard this spring, "I could see first-hand, on Zoom, the difficulty for my faculty colleagues and staff at the center of juggling childcare for small children with their roster of teaching, service, research and social justice activism." Lee's colleagues in the English department scrambled, too, until one of them brought it up at a research roundtable. Discussions, research and collaboration followed. The petition, which is inspired by similar documents at the University of Oregon and in the University of Wisconsin System, went live last month.

Lee said she was surprised that the request granted most quickly was what she had imagined would take longest: a policy allowing faculty caretakers, including those of elder parents, to apply for modified service or teaching relief for two quarters.

Additional negotiations are ongoing. Asked about the program, the university said in a statement that its administrative leadership is "acutely aware of the strain that the pandemic has placed on our faculty and staff with dependents at home, especially those members of our community who are disproportionately affected by the impacts of the pandemic and those with limited resources." So far the university has created a dependent care task force and "charged it with developing a menu of policies and resources to support our faculty and staff." UCLA "hopes to be able to share our plans with the campus community before the fall quarter begins."

Not All Positive

Related discussions are happening on other campuses, as well. It's not all good.

Stanford University recently took some heat for suggesting that parents may "coordinate a family 'bubble' for caregiving," or go about "utilizing nannies, babysitters or tutors that can be shared with family bubbles." It also asked professors to consider "leveraging teenagers that might not be engaged" in their own work.

The guidance, from Stanford's WorkLife Office, made its way to Twitter, where it sunk like lead. The general criticism was that Stanford was desperately out-of-touch, as most professors can't afford nannies or tutors, and making bubbles and leveraging teenagers isn't as easy as it sounds.

Gregory J. Martin, an assistant professor of political economy at Stanford with 4-year-told twins, said the advice came off as a "darkly funny," long-winded way of saying, "You're on your own." The WorkLife Office runs Stanford daycares, and Martin's kids are still displaced from the pandemic.

Faculty parents don't necessarily have it worse than any other kind of working parent, Martin said. The only distinctive thing is that "the thinness of the academic job market means most of us moved far away from extended family for our jobs." So academic parents are "perhaps unusually reliant on the availability of employer-provided childcare to make it work."

Stanford said in an email that it recognizes that the "caregiving landscape, which includes limited childcare programs and youth services, is significantly impacting our campus community." It's communicating with faculty members about expanded family support services and resources, including flexible work arrangements to meet caregiver needs and remote working options for this fall.

On daycares, Stanford said its centers are reopening based on local county guidelines. And, at least at Stanford, faculty members are not required to teach in-person classes.

Elsewhere, that's not the case, or there's a fine line.

A dean at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa's Capstone College of Nursing recently apologized to faculty members for writing them an email saying, "As we prepare for our students to return in a few short weeks, we need to have a clear understanding of your intention and ability to meet your teaching obligations [at the college]. If you anticipate that you will not be able to return to work [at the college] and fulfill your teaching assignment as planned, we need you to let us know by 8/7/2020; so that we have time to hire a new faculty member to replace you."

Suzanne Prevost, the dean, also wrote, "We wish that we had unlimited abilities to flex schedules and 'make it work' for everyone." Yet the college's obligations to students -- including supervising clinical programs -- have only increased, she said, and the college "must have faculty who are able to be here."

Taking the message as a threat, or a request that they quit instead of seek remote teaching accommodations, some nursing faculty members contacted the advocacy group Safe Return UA. Prevost wrote in a follow-up memo that she did "not mean to suggest that any of you should resign from your faculty positions or that you will be terminated if you are unable to return to work."

The university said via email that both the college and greater Alabama will "continue to provide accommodations to those who request them, and have provided faculty with paid remote assignments." Some elements of nursing must be taught in person, however, it said, so if "faculty who provide this type of instruction are not able to participate, the college needs to make alternate arrangements to cover those courses."

"If the college is unable to continue this type of instruction, graduations of many nursing students will be delayed at a time when the country desperately needs more nurses," Alabama added.

Mike Innis-Jiménez, professor of American studies at Alabama and a member of Safe Return UA, said via email the incident demonstrates the problem with being "really decentralized as far as getting approval for remote work. It's up to deans ultimately to approve people, or supervisors."

This ground-level policy may work for functional programs but leaves difficult or child-unfriendly ones to their own devices, he said. Indeed, reliance on chairs' and deans' goodwill is a criticism of many institutions' approaches to the childcare crisis that's been on the verge of boiling over since March.

Many Parents, No Real Solutions

Kiernan Mathews, executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, has a term for this crisis: "Babar in the Room." It's a sweet name, recalling Babar the friendly elephant, but it doesn't make the issue any less acute -- least of all for Mathews, who has two children of his own, aged 11 and 14.

"My personal solution to this, which I haven't succeeded yet in realizing, is either to find a college student stuck at home who wants to tutor my kids for a few hours a day, or to be offered a job out of the country," Mathews added.

According to data from COACHE's Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, 53 percent of faculty members are parents. About 16 percent are parents to an infant, toddler or pre-school child. One-third are parents to a school-aged child. Sixteen percent have a college-aged child and 12 percent are caregivers for a dependent adult.

Despite that, he said, institutional responses are few and far between. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act included emergency paid sick leave of up to two weeks and expanded family medical leave of up to 10 more weeks to faculty members and other employees for whom childcare is unavailable and who can't work remotely. That doesn't address trying to teach remotely and care for children at home at the same time, however, he noted.

Mathews wrote a recent blog post for COACHE that "grand challenges" such as childcare right now "require cross-silo imagination and leadership. Unfortunately, as your COACHE reports will tell you, interdisciplinary capacity is still more talk than walk at our colleges and universities. What's worse, childcare during a pandemic demands a solution beyond our campus walls -- working with K-12, government and private sectors."

While the "downstream consequences for equity are too many and too tangled for me to appreciate fully right now," he said, "one thing is clear: unless your institution conducts an honest and comprehensive rethinking of academic rewards, this is going to be bad."

It's true. Several early studies already suggest that the pandemic is negatively affecting parents' perceptions of their research productivity and the real research output of women in particular. Beyond the grave stress that faculty parents are experiencing now, the impacts of this time on their career trajectories may be reflected in the makeup of the future faculty, absent effective interventions.

Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, is currently doing a research project about parenting during the pandemic. Many of the 130 moms she's working with in local Monroe County, Indiana, are affiliated with the university.

So far, Calarco's found that the pandemic is taking a particular toll on working mothers. Some 88 percent say they're more stressed now than before the pandemic, compared to 66 percent of the stay-at-home moms in the sample. About one-third are getting less sleep now than before, compared to 16 percent of stay-at-home moms, and 47 percent report that they're getting more frustrated with their kids than before, compared to a third of stay-at-home moms.

Most professors and graduate student mothers do not have extended family nearby to help with childcare. And so those academic mothers either traded off care and work with their partners, "limiting the time they had to spend on work-related tasks, or shifted most of their work to evenings and weekends, instead," Calarco said. Unpartnered academic mothers and those whose spouses and partners work outside the home have it hardest of all.

Where childcare is available, such as through family members, it is "essential for those families in being able to work," she said.

In Calarco's case, her 3-year-old's preschool is still open, at reduced hours. Her 6-year-old has been home all along, and the elementary school recently announced that it will be all online this fall. Her spouse is in university technology, dealing with that aspect of the coronavirus response, and generally in meetings all day. So because Calarco's schedule is more flexible -- not less full -- "I'll be the one cutting short my work day to do the later drop-off and earlier pick-ups, and I'll probably end up working more late nights and early mornings to get everything done."

"We don't have any family nearby to help," she added, "and my parents are still working. My mom is an elementary school teacher who is currently scheduled to teach in-person this fall."

Still, the family has a tentative plan for making fall work, even if Calarco's daughter's "guilt game" is strong. That all falls apart if the preschool closes, though, she said -- and there's a "decent" chance that it will, given that local COVID-19 case counts are rising, even ahead of the return of students. The preschool workers were also relying on K-12 schools being open for their own children, too.

To Pod or Not to Pod?

In other attempts to make things work, some families who can afford to hire a teacher or tutor are launching their own homeschooling or private "pods" this fall. A national debate about educational equity has ensued, and as default workers toward educational equity, professors have found themselves drawn in.

Miriam Posner, assistant professor of information studies and digital humanities at UCLA, has spoken out publicly against private pods and drivers of inequity. That's even though remote learning with her own 7-year-old was a "disaster" last spring.

"I don't think Dora learned much of anything, and I was stressed out and miserable," said Posner, who also has an infant son at home. "We're really fortunate that my daughter is in a Spanish-immersion program, but it adds another layer of complication, since my Spanish is terrible."

Still, Posner said, "I've been worried about the rise of private pods, even as I totally sympathize with parents who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. We all know that schools are alarmingly segregated now, and I'm concerned that if this idea really takes off, it could make a bad situation even worse."

While one group of kids studies under the close supervision of a private tutor, she said, their schoolmates may have no supervision at all. Better-resourced classmates leap ahead. Students with disabilities may also get left behind. And if pod parents "become enamored" of pods, Posner continued, "it could also mean that we'll see families divesting from their school districts entirely, taking funding and resources with them."

It's not a "huge stretch" of the imagination for Posner, as she's already received pushback in her own district for her views.

Overall, she said, "We're all stuck in a really awful situation, because our government has let us down. The question we're left with is, do we use this as an opportunity to forge solidarity as a community, to demand better for all of our kids? Or do we close ranks and hoard resources, even if it means leaving kids behind?"

The hope is that if "enough parents demand supervision and instruction for everyone, our local leaders will no longer be able to ignore this crisis of care," Posner said. One idea is expanding existing "hub-spoke" configurations, whereby a teacher teaches from one location and small groups of students, attended by trained assistants, learn in geographically distributed spaces.

Posner added, "There simply is no way that parents can work full-time and be their kids' teachers. At some point, the district's pretense that this is plausible begins to look like complicity."

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