Fall's Looming Child-Care Crisis

Full vitae childcare lead 0730 018

Image: Ty Wright for The Chronicle

By Katherine Mangan

Earlier this week, Mary Sterenberg had settled on a plan to send her kids to their classrooms on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other Friday this fall. As a lecturer in communications at Ohio State University, she’d almost figured out how that schedule could mesh with teaching her Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday hybrid and remote classes, and her husband’s full-time job as a civil engineer.

Then, amid rising cases of Covid-19, the school system announced that it would probably ditch the idea of starting the year with some in-person instruction. Suddenly, the plans parents had pieced together with carefully choreographed schedules, copious bottles of hand sanitizer, and grudging cooperation from children eager to see their classmates flew out the window.

Sterenberg, shown above with her husband and two of their three children, ages 12, 9, and 7, is now considering pooling resources with other families to hire a part-time tutor who could oversee and supplement online learning. But finding a solution that’s affordable, safe, and accommodates so many schedules won’t be easy. “We’ll just have to figure out how to make the puzzle pieces fit together,” Sterenberg said.

Welcome to the fall of 2020, a semester that will test the endurance, flexibility, and finances of parents everywhere. Both K-12 and college schedules are expected to keep shifting to reflect the changing risks posed by Covid-19. Children who start out in classrooms may end up studying from home for longer than their exhausted parents had counted on. That could cause a child-care dilemma for parents whose own schedules and workplaces are in flux.

As the clock ticks toward the start of the semester, dozens of faculty and staff members who responded to inquiries from The Chronicle wrote that they worry about how they’ll teach their kindergartners to read, keep their teenagers from ditching their textbooks for video games, and meet the needs of college students who may be emotionally fragile this fall. The vast majority of the responses came from women.

“It’s no longer just ‘can I get my kid to baseball practice on time?’ It’s ‘can I get up, get my reports done, and help my 6-year-old complete a class assignment?’” said Laura Paley, who manages career services for Lewis University College of Business, in suburban Chicago. Her kids are 6 and 10. Parents in their school system were given the option of fully face-to-face, fully remote, or hybrid classes. They were told that those options may change again by next week, but once parents lock in, they can’t switch, Paley said.

“For those of us who are planners and like to know what’s happening two to three years out, it’s been an exercise in patience knowing we aren’t driving the bus,” she said. ”It feels like every week, we’re dealing with decisions that are big and could change tomorrow.”

Paley knows she’s among the lucky ones. Not everyone has the option to work from home, the internet bandwidth to keep a family online, or a supportive partner with whom to share home-schooling responsibilities.

Lewis University, she said, has generally been supportive of parents working from home, providing technical support and flexibility in scheduling.

Other colleges have issued mixed messages that sent parents into a panicky spiral. In June, Florida State University alarmed employees with an email that said the university would be reverting to a previous policy that required them to get outside child care if they were working from home. The university later apologized for the timing of the announcement, as Covid-19 was raging and safe child-care options were slim. Employees who needed to keep their kids home could work out arrangements with their supervisors, the institution said.

Other colleges around the country relaxed similar rules, urging supervisors to work with employees to balance work and home responsibilities.

Colleges have financial, as well as ethical, incentives to help parents, who might leave if they can’t come up with a way to balance their home and work responsibilities. Campuses that rely on their reputations as family-friendly employers could take a hit to recruiting efforts if they’re seen as forcing employees to choose between kids and careers.

In Seattle, where public schools are expected to start virtually this fall, along with nearly all of the University of Washington’s classes, many female employees will be taking on more of the home schooling and caring for sick and aging relatives, Ana Mari Cauce, the university’s president, said during a town-hall discussion in July.

As a member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s committee on women in those disciplines, she is “very concerned about how this might affect the career trajectory of women just as they are moving up the ranks into full professors,” she said.

Some parents have opted to cut back to part-time work, taking advantage of their colleges’ own leave policies, or those afforded by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The federal extended-leave policy ensures that covered employees receive two-thirds of their pay when they’re forced to take time off because their children’s schools or day-care centers are closed because of Covid-19, and they can’t work remotely.

But at a time when so many colleges are laying off and furloughing employees, many are reluctant to request time off. And advocates for women in academe caution that cutting back to part-time work could set back careers and earnings potential for years to come.

Amy Armenia, chair of the sociology department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., has been studying ways colleges can help alleviate child-care crises this fall. Programs in women’s and gender studies have also been collecting models of promising ideas, most of which have yet to be put into practice. Among the suggestions Armenia and two psychology faculty members compiled:

  • Put nonessential service obligations, like curriculum reform, on hold.
  • Evaluate teaching loads and enrollments to be sure that early-career academics, who are more likely to have young children, aren’t overly burdened with large courses.
  • Allow flexibility for asynchronous teaching, work from home, and nonstandard work times.
  • Help employees help each other by setting up banks for unused sick leave or coordinating efforts to share part-time nannies and tutors.
  • Create lists of employees without current care-giving responsibilities who are willing to spend an hour or two a week virtually reading books or teaching math lessons.

Living in Florida, a hot spot for the virus now, Armenia said she and her colleagues could use such breaks. Florida’s governor has mandated that schools reopen this month, with options for virtual enrollment.

Armenia, who will be teaching three classes remotely this fall, said she decided to keep her 9-year-old daughter home to help reduce the number of in-person teachers needed.

“Our state is going in the wrong direction on so many metrics,” she said. “If I was fearful about going into the classroom this fall, I couldn’t in good conscience make someone else come to work to teach her.”

She knows it won’t be easy. “In the spring, being on web-conferencing for six hours a day for teaching and meetings, trying to get my daughter moving on her remote schoolwork, prepping for classes in the evening ... there were times when it felt like we were getting to the breaking point.”

Her own president, at least, is listening to the suggestions she and her colleagues compiled. Last week, Grant H. Cornwell, Rollins’s president, sent faculty and staff members an email acknowledging “the challenges and sacrifices” they’d made while juggling competing demands of work and family. He outlined steps the college would take, like extending the tenure clock by a year, expanding emergency-leave options, and encouraging supervisors to “suspend expectations for faculty research productivity” in the fall while they’re developing new course modalities, participating in faculty governance, and caring for families.

Armenia calls that a welcome signal, especially for untenured faculty and staff, that caring for their families during the pandemic won’t be held against them.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the schedules of employees across academe. While many staff members don’t have flexible work arrangements, those who do are anticipating a chaotic fall. Here are a few of their stories.

Janeria Easley had certain expectations for her first year on the tenure track. After a strong and stable, if exhausting, fall of 2019, the assistant professor of African American studies at Emory University was looking forward to test-driving a new course in the spring. Ideally, she’d have enough time to tackle her research and polish off an article.

Then came a death in Easley’s immediate family, followed quickly by a global pandemic and a rapid shift to remote teaching. Day cares closed, so Easley spent the rest of the spring at home in Decatur, Ga., a with her husband and Atlas, their animated 3-year-old son.

This summer, it’s been a struggle to find a consistent routine. Early on, Easley’s husband shouldered most of the child care, but that wasn’t sustainable since he needs kid-free time to job hunt. So Easley started taking the early morning shift with her son. A sociable boy who misses interacting with other toddlers, one of his new phrases is, “I want friends.” Later in the day, her husband takes over, and Easley attempts to get work done at a desk in her bedroom.

She’s made progress on two grants and continues to work on the article that she planned to wrap up this spring. But it feels, to Easley, like it’s not enough. A few weeks ago, her parents drove down from New Jersey to pick up Atlas and give her and her husband a much-needed break.

Now, they’re trying to figure out a longer-term child-care solution. The day care they’re considering seems to have less-than-ideal pandemic procedures, Easley said, and baby sitters can be expensive and might also be unsafe. They might stay with extended family, since Easley is able to teach online.

She also worries about the potential ramifications the pandemic could have on her tenure timeline. “There are some ripples here,” she said, “that are a little unnerving.”

Stephanie Porras’s days have felt, she said, like marathons. Since March, the associate professor of art history at Tulane University, a single mother, has been juggling her full-time job while caring full time for Lucia, 10, and Penelope, 6, her two daughters. The French-immersion school they attend in New Orleans went remote right before Tulane did, and Porras became responsible — with some help from her mother, who lives nearby — for facilitating her children’s online learning in a language she doesn’t speak fluently.

Porras was also the incoming chair of her department, so this summer she’s been trying to solve riddles like how do you teach glass blowing online? and how do you socially distance pottery wheels? Her own research went out the window. She squeezes in small chunks of work when the piano teacher comes over with a keyboard to instruct in the backyard, or when her daughters flip on a French television show.

This semester, Porras plans to drop her children off at the university’s temporary child-care facility — an option available to faculty only during their teaching hours — for the duration of her weekly in-person course. She’ll then teach for three hours in a socially distanced classroom. She loves her students, she said, but it’s unnerving to know that “my health, my mother’s health, my children’s health is going to be in the hands of 18- to 24- year-olds.”

Still, she’s thankful that she’s able to navigate the pandemic as a tenured professor. She feels lucky to have the job security. “I’m at the top of the pyramid here,” Porras said. The further down you go, she said, “it only gets worse.”

With three children ages 5 and under, Emily Acosta Lewis had been looking forward to settling her oldest into kindergarten this fall.

But with opening plans uncertain for both the local school and campus-based day-care center, the associate professor of communication and media studies is scrambling. She needs to line up child care for her 3-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter while adding teaching a 5-year-old to read to her to-do list for the fall.

Acosta Lewis is grateful that the California State University system decided early on to commit to a virtual fall. Knowing that she’ll be teaching from home adds one bit of certainty to the wildly unpredictable months ahead for herself and her husband, a high-school special-education teacher who will also be working from home.

Putting her kids in day care is scary. “Kids are germy. They cough in each others’ mouths. They lick each other,” she said. Scary, too, is the prospect of home-schooling a kindergartner who’s used to play-based day care.

Half of her master bedroom has been converted to a home office with a standing desk sitting atop an old kitchen table. She and her husband are setting up a classroom in their garage so their daughter Quinn can feel like she’s going to school.

“As everything gets closer, I’m feeling more and more overwhelmed by it all,” she said on Thursday. “I don’t know how we’re going to manage three kids, distance learning with a kindergartner, and full-time jobs.”

Trisha Prunty knows that keeping her four kids, who range in age from 5 to 11, home from school this fall will make her job more hectic than ever.

But Prunty, a professor of psychology at Blackburn College, in rural Illinois, is worried about the increase in Covid-19 cases locally and made the decision with her husband after a family discussion over dinner.

Her daughter, who is in sixth grade and a social butterfly, thought she could handle keeping physically distant from friends at school, although her parents were doubtful. “My fourth-grader said ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea. There will be so many funerals if we go back.’” As far as she’s concerned, “It’s hard to argue with that logic.”

Prunty’s husband, John, who has been staying home to watch the kids, was planning to seek a job in nutrition now that the youngest is in kindergarten, but Covid, and the demands of home schooling, put a stop to that. Prunty, who’s teaching four courses this fall, shuts herself in her room with a sign telling the kids that she’s working and stays there until lunch. At least in theory. She’s gotten accustomed to interruptions.

“The younger two need more hand-holding and motivation and direction,” she said. “We keep them in the kitchen so one parent can deal with the tantrums that inevitably happen.”

This will be her first semester teaching at Blackburn after her previous employer, Lindenwood University, closed the campus in Belleville where she taught. She’s untenured and, like others in her situation, worried about job security.

After struggling to figure out “seven different ways to do a syllabus,” she was relieved when she finalized plans to teach remotely and could concentrate on making sure her family had enough computers, a stronger router, and the positive attitudes “that will make or break the situation.”

Hilliary Creely discovered just how vulnerable her family of four is when the latest babysitter tested positive for Covid-19 last month.

The test results came back the same day she was promoted from associate dean for research at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She had struggled to line up substitute care after the campus center where she sent her 5- and 2-year-olds closed in March because of the pandemic.

After two weeks of strict quarantine and high anxiety, she and her husband, who chairs the university’s anthropology department, learned that all four had dodged the virus. But they’re not eager to expose their kindergartner again, so now, they’re exploring the possibility of forming a “pod” with six to eight families, hiring an elementary teacher, and renting a space where they can safely school their children. Faculty parents in art, music, languages, and anthropology have pitched in ideas for enrichment activities.

Living in a rural community with unreliable internet, she will probably go in to the office some days for Zoom sessions, while her husband continues with face-to-face instruction and meticulous safety precautions. Creely, who is stepping in to the interim dean’s role this week, will be taking on the responsibilities of the new job “under unprecedented institutional budgetary challenges,” she wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, child care challenges remain. Their toddler returned to the carefully reopened campus day-care center and loved it. She says her 5-year-old is resilient and would probably be OK now that he’s moving on to kindergarten, but she can’t imagine sustaining the level of anxiety she’s felt lately.

“We NEVER imagined ourselves home-schooling,” she wrote in an email. “My husband and I are proud graduates of public K-12 education and now proudly work at a public university — but, there are no perfect options and everyone is doing the best they can.”

Emma Pettit contributed to the profiles in this article.


Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, student success, and job training, as well as free speech and other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.