Working While Parenting Is a Reality of Covid-19. One University Tried to Forbid It. – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Working While Parenting Is a Reality of Covid-19. One University Tried to Forbid It. – The Chronicle of Higher Education


[Updated (7/2/2020, 11 a.m.) with Florida State University’s announcement of revisions to its child-care policy for remote work.]

During a chaotic spring semester, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced parents and kids to work and study from home, it wasn’t uncommon for a child to pop up on a parent’s Zoom screen needing help with homework, or someone to mediate a sibling fight.

But next month, Florida State University staff members were told, they could lose their right to work from home if they’re simultaneously caring for children. Outrage exploded on social media following the announcement last week, and remained unabated when the university amended it on Monday. By Friday, Florida State had further clarified its policy and apologized for the timing of the announcement.

The policy caught the attention of college employees nationally, who took to social media to object, with a smattering of dark humor. How would the institution enforce the rule? By swooping in if an employee rats on a colleague whose toddler saunters in to a Zoom session?

As the pandemic has roared back in states like Florida, and the likelihood of returning full time to campuses and schools has dimmed, parents there and at institutions across the country face increasing anxiety about keeping their families safe and everyone sane this fall.

Florida State has clarified that the policy applies only to staff members whose jobs normally require them to be on campus full time, and that it restores a policy that was in place before the pandemic struck. It doesn’t affect faculty members, who aren’t required to make special arrangement to work from home.

In normal circumstances, it isn’t uncommon for corporations, and some colleges that are concerned about productivity, to require staff members who ask to work at home to find someone else to watch their children. But these are hardly normal times, critics of these policies point out.

At a time when many parents aren’t comfortable with the idea of sending their children back to schools or day care full time, even if that option becomes available, the thought that they could be penalized for keeping them home, unless they have extra supervision, stings.

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“We’re in a crisis moment and we should treat it as such,” Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a public-policy think tank, said in an interview.

With many day-care centers closed or raising their prices to cover the cost of the pandemic, and more home-schooling likely for the fall, “Nothing has actually changed, except that we’ve decided to punish parents for having kids they want to and need to take care of,” she added.

While working fathers have also been affected, women tend to take on more of the responsibility for home-schooling and child care, and are more likely to suffer if forced to return to their workplaces without adequate options for their children, Kashen said.

Florida State’s telework policy, which will resume on August 7, states in part that: “If a child or dependent is present during scheduled work hours, arrangements must be made for the care of the child or dependent by someone other than the employee, and the specifics of the arrangements may be requested by HR to be submitted with the Telecommuting Agreement.”

This part of the policy was suspended at the start of the Covid-19 crisis, when K-12 schools went online and day-care centers were closed, to allow employees working remotely to simultaneously care for their children.

“Now that our local public schools are planning to resume in-person instruction next month and local day-care centers are open throughout the county, FSU is also shifting back to normal policy,” Renisha Gibbs, associate vice president for human resources, said in a statement written last week and updated on Monday.

Also on Monday, the university announced that it was pushing back its plan to start repopulating the largely deserted campus on July 6, citing spiking Covid-19 cases in Florida.

Meanwhile, public schools across the nation are starting to announce that students will be in class for only part of the week, as they roll out hybrid plans for in-school and at-home learning.

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Florida State, Gibbs wrote, is closely monitoring local counties’ reopening plans. “If circumstances change, Florida State University will make any adjustments accordingly.” Gibbs added that employees with high-risk situations can apply for temporary permission to work from home.

Florida State officials expect between 25 percent and 50 percent of their employees to return to campus in August, depending on how Covid-19, which is raging at record levels there this week, is contained. Faced with a backlash against resuming restrictions next month, Gibbs said in a statement emailed to The Chronicle on Tuesday that the university would work with employees whom it recognizes are “balancing parental responsibilities and work obligations.”

On Friday, the university sent a message to employees apologizing for the way it announced the resumption of the work-at-home restrictions.

After a Zoom meeting with more than 700 employees this week, the university recognized that “the timing of the message — as Covid-19 cases continue to rise locally and around the state — caused confusion and anxiety for many employees,” Kyle Clark, vice president for finance and administration, said.

With so much about Covid-19 and school schedules in flux, “we recognize the need for sensitivity, flexibility, and deference to the personal and public-health imperatives of this moment,” the statement read. “We are requesting that employees coordinate with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to work obligations.”

The University of Florida and Florida International University have similar rules on the books.

The University of Florida’s policy asks supervisors: “As applicable, has the employee agreed not to provide personal care for a child or dependent adult during scheduled work hours, and arranged to ensure care is provided as needed?” A university spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on how the policy is being enforced.

Florida International University’s policy states the following: “Teleworking is not a substitute for the care of dependents. Employees who participate in the telework program are expected to make dependent and/or child-care arrangements during work hours.” It goes on to add, “However, under the current circumstances there will be flexibility afforded to our work force. If your obligations for family care do not allow you to perform your duties, you will need to report sick leave when caring for family members that need medical supervision/care or vacation leave for healthy family members.”

El pagnier Kay Hudson, FIU’s vice president for human resources, said in an emailed statement that the university understands that most employees have been working remotely, many with children home-schooling and with limited child-care options. As a result, the university is being flexible with remote-work options and “taking advantage of flex scheduling for work to be completed beyond traditional business hours, which allows care to be given for children and dependents.”

Even though they aren’t directly affected by the remote-work policy, faculty members at Florida State have voiced support for their staff colleagues, pointing out that without the protections of tenure, many of them are even more vulnerable.

A statement on behalf of the advisory board of the women’s-, gender- and sexualities-studies program said the policy will compound existing inequities by placing the biggest burden on the lowest-paid members of the staff, who are disproportionately female and people of color.

“Many faculty, staff, and students will rightly fear risking their families’ safety by sending children to school or day care, and child care is likely to become increasingly difficult to find,” the statement, which was later removed, reportedly at the university’s request, said. “The potential loss of ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’ by employees who are parents with children at home is greatly outweighed by the risk of lost work if they or one of their dependents contracts Covid-19 because they were forced to put their children back in school.”

Cathy McCLive,a tenured associate professor of history who has children in kindergarten and third grade, said in an interview that if she were forced to send her children back to school at this point, she and her husband would consider taking a short unpaid leave from work. That’s an option that lower-paid staff members don’t have, she said.

“This is a public-health crisis. It’s an economic crisis, and it’s a caregiving crisis,” she said. “We’re nowhere near the end of it.”

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at [email protected].

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