How is your pandemic parenting going? "The Faculty Parent" series chronicles the highs and lows of juggling parenting, teaching, research, and writing in uncertain times.
I go through my kids’ closets this time of year to clean out the clothes they’ve outgrown, the pants with holes in the knees, and to assess what all they’ll need for the coming school year and the colder months ahead. This year, I’m also assessing what we’ll need to weather another season of uncertainty. I’m anticipating that changes (expected and unexpected) in the progress of the pandemic may bring sporadic school and daycare closures, just as it did last year when bad weather and high positivity rates led to COVID-related school closures and snow days.
But how do we prepare for something we weren’t able to prepare for last year, when schools, daycares, and universities went remote without comprehensive plans to accommodate caregivers with full time jobs, and when employers left caregivers (disproportionately women) in the lurch as the childcare infrastructure simply dissolved? How do I, as one parent, in one household, solve a problem that—though often treated like a personal responsibility—is, in fact, systemic?
The title of this post comes from an RU-N faculty parent who describes her approach as a set of “at home contingency plans” designed by her family for her family, in the absence of any clear communication about preparations for another “pivot” to remote learning from either employers, schools, or childcare centers. Many of us are taking this approach, whether we are faculty, staff, or students, because we must. So here are some practical thoughts for pragmatic parents.
Request accommodations. Individual faculty with disabilities, as well as those with religious practices or observances requiring such, may request an accommodation from the university. Some conditions entitle you to legal accommodations such as the flexibility of teaching classes remotely this year if need be. You can learn more about qualifying conditions and request accommodations in the following ways the process with the Office of Academic Labor Relations (ALR).
Requests based on a medical condition or disability:
Requests based on a religious reason:
Request other modifications. Under current law, caregiving responsibilities (even for unvaccinated children under 12 or for immunocompromised adults) are not grounds for an accommodation via the process outlined above. However, you can still make requests to teach remotely, to teach (or not teach) at particular times on particular days, to co-teach a course, to work with a TA, to teach multiple sections of the same course, to teach a familiar course rather than a new prep, and/or other tweaks to make this academic year a more manageable one. In order to make these kinds of arrangements, you’ll need to have a one-on-one conversation with your chair, dean, or supervisor, which means individual experiences and outcomes will vary widely across the campus, but you know what they say about squeaky wheels... Make alternate care arrangements (to the extent possible). We don’t yet have access to Backup Care from an aggregate care provider like Bright Horizons. However, many caregiver databases like Care.com, UrbanSitter, etc., have new features for individual users that allow families and caregivers to share information about vaccination status, recent testing, daily temperature checks, and so on. If you haven’t already, you may want to begin building a roster of great sitters in your area who are fully vaccinated, may be willing to agree to work with just one family to minimize exposure, and/or have a special rate for caring for sick kids. Reach out to the RU-N Faculty Parent email list to find colleagues who live nearby and might want to join you in a nanny share or group babysitting arrangement. Depending on your needs, you may want to start developing a list of tutors to support your children’s academic work, care centers that can provide full or part time care and/or supervise kids during remote learning, or even have a pod set up and on standby so that it can be launched as needed. (One slim silver lining to this coming school year is that parents of school-age children have a better working knowledge of these services as well as what the needs of their particular child will be in the case of a pivot to online or hybrid instruction.) Don’t forget to plan for the added mental and emotional strain on kids and adults! It’s not too early to think about contacting a therapist either for yourself or for your children; see the previous Faculty Parent post “Spring, Breaking” for a list of resources on finding high quality mental health care for kids of all ages.
Build flexibility into your syllabus. Rutgers is back in person this year, but as instructors we know that flexibility will be key to the success of students and faculty in the classroom this year. Activate and utilize a Canvas site for your courses so that the course already exists in both physical and digital space and students are familiar with the course layout in either space. This will make it easier to flip any in-person lesson plan to an online synchronous or asynchronous one as needed. Don’t hesitate to keep the best of what you learned in the spring 2019 pivot in your fall 2021 course design, e.g. groupme chats or slack channels for students to communicate with one another, embedded asynchronous lecture videos, and interactive and discussion-based online assignments. Think especially strategically about the tail end of the semester, when the weather will be colder and COVID surges are likely to be at their peak; consider deemphasizing in-person components during that period, if possible. Final exams or projects could potentially be replaced by take-home exams, live group presentations can be recorded.
Support student parents. Many of our undergraduate and graduate students are facing the same dilemmas as we are but with even less support in place (see, for example, this recent piece). Be prepared to accommodate the requests of students with caregiving responsibilities in their households. These students may be unable to attend in-person sessions, unable to make assignment deadlines, or unable to participate in group work outside class. You can make these students feel welcome and supported by inquiring early in the term about whether students have caregiving responsibilities, communicating that you support their enrollment in the course, are open and sympathetic to their unique needs, and sharing resources that may be most useful to students with caregiving responsibilities (e.g., location of care centers near campus like Sarah Ward Nursery on Lock St., location and hours for the food pantry, the counseling center, disability services, instructions for accessing the campus lactation rooms). If helpful, you can direct students to the various ways they can request accommodations and assistance:
Newark COVID19 Needs Reporting Form: This student-facing form is currently active and received by staff members in the Office of the Dean of Students, Health Services, Community Standards and Housing.
The Rutgers University-Newark Campus Awareness Response and Education (CARE) Team responds to student concerns on campus; assisting students who may be in crisis by developing a support plan for students to help them deal effectively with personal situations that might impact their academic performance. The CARE Team is also who to ask about campus lactation rooms.
RU-N4Success connects students with a network of advisors (e.g., academic advisor, financial aid, student accounting representative, career counselors) who can help support their pursuit of academic goals. Students access the platform with their NetID to make and manage appointments and send messages to advisors.
Self-care. As you are planning to care for everyone else, be sure to plan to take time to care for yourself as well. For me, that means creating an “at home contingency plan” to make sure I have time to shower, eat, exercise, and sleep a whole lot more than I did last school year. It also means going ahead and making those appointments you put off (you know you did) to see the dentist, the optometrist, to get that annual check-up, and to actually follow up and do the things those specialists suggest you do. (Getting an updated vision prescription isn’t the same thing as actually getting new lenses with that prescription in your frames, Patricia). How can you prepare to take care of you? You can take a self-care approach to teaching, too. Giving your class the occasional study day or replacing a couple class meetings with student-driven presentations, guest lectures, or project planning sessions will allow you to build pedagogical and mental breaks for yourself as we all keep dog-paddling towards winter recess. Say No and Feel Good About It. I lost my access to childcare unexpectedly this week — incidentally, I also lost the bag of school supplies and uniforms I had carefully prepped ahead of time and set aside, so that’s not awesome — but I’m finding that the new skill I learned last year came back to me pretty quickly. I can now say firmly but gently in emails, on Zoom calls, and over the phone, “I don’t have access to childcare at this time and will be unable to...” and fill in the blank: attend that meeting, make that deadline, give that talk, etc. For the most part, folks are understanding and, more importantly, I feel good about communicating the reality of my work experience right now.
We can’t predict what will happen this coming Fall semester, but laying down supportive foundations and granting yourself and your students some ease for dealing with disruptions is an approach that future-you will be thankful for.
Patricia Akhimie is a 2020-2021 Chancellor’s Scholar-in-Residence with the P3 Collaboratory. She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, where she teaches Shakespeare, Renaissance drama, and early modern women’s travel writing. She is also the mother of two kids, ages five and one. @pakhimie
Further Reading, Listening, and Viewing
Furman, Michael “Virtual Office Hours Should Be Here to Stay” Inside Higher Ed (Jun 2, 2021)
Johnson, Matthew R. “10 Course Policies to Rethink on Your Fall Syllabus” Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug 11, 2021)
McMurtrie, Beth “Teaching: When Your Classes Start, How Will You Assess Students?” Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug 5, 2021)
Supporting Women Academics During COVID, virtual forum recording, hosted by Liz McMillen of Chronicle of Higher Education (June 28, 2021)
Petersen, Anne Helen. “You’re Still Exhausted.” Culture Study Newsletter (Aug 4, 2021)
“Unchartered Territory: Back-to-School Meets the Delta Surge,” Consider This (NPR; Aug 11, 2021).
Workshop Recording and Asynchronous Training: "Planning for Uncertainty, Fall 2021." This Canvas course, built by our friends at CTAAR, archives and expands the workshop of the same name presented on August 11, 2021.
Sample Syllabus Statements: Course Plan for the Unexpected. Created by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Petersen, Anne Helen. “Other Countries Have Social Safety Nets. The U.S. has Women.” Culture Study Newsletter (Nov 11, 2020)
Spilovy, Tanya. “Let’s Support College Student Mothers During the Pandemic — and Beyond.” EdSurge (Aug 2, 2021)
To stay in touch with other RU-N faculty parents, join the Rutgers Newark Faculty Parents email list. You can join any time by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org