After the abrupt shift to online learning in March, theology professor Erin Cline found herself stretched thin between teaching classes at Georgetown University, caring for three young children — two of whom have special needs — and releasing her fourth book.
“Honestly, it’s been a nightmare. It’s been extremely difficult,” Cline said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “I had invitations to write articles, but I just can’t. I’m having to decline just about everything right now. All three of our kids require one-on-one support in order to have online school instruction.”
Cline said it was nearly impossible to fully support all three of her school-aged children when they shifted to online school, because both she and her husband work.
“We were just outnumbered,” Cline said. “And one of us would be working while the other was running back and forth in between the three children trying to keep them on various laptops, and it just was not possible.”
Cline’s experience is not unique among Georgetown faculty who are child and elder caregivers. In October 2020, more than 75 Georgetown faculty members delivered a memo to university administrators and deans that highlighted its inadequate response to the enduring crisis in child care and elder care, as parents struggle to balance professional obligations and new challenges at home, such as helping children with virtual teaching or general concerns over safety in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spearheaded by history professor Katherine Benton-Cohen, the memo mirrored efforts by faculty at Northwestern, Stanford and other private universities to improve care policies for faculty and professors, citing statistics, testimonials and potential plans of action for Georgetown to implement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges for all instructors at Georgetown, but especially for those professors and faculty who must make difficult sacrifices to manage their professional responsibilities with caring for their children or eldery family members. While some faculty have been able to get child care assistance from colleagues and friends, others, like untenured faculty, have faced additional hurdles as they are forced to navigate the pandemic with minimal assistance from Georgetown.
A Crisis of Care
Since the shift to a virtual teaching environment, professors have faced multiple challenges, including transitioning coursework to an online format as well as finding new support systems for dependent care.
For history professor Chandra Manning, the shift to a virtual environment meant facing new responsibilities in taking care of her two school-age children on the autism spectrum. The disruption to her children’s normal routine has led to many challenges, and with a lack of academic resources to draw on to help educate her children from home, such as one-on-one classroom aides and extra classes, struggles abound, Manning said.
“There was teaching my own students, trying to get my kids through their curriculum and dealing with the world turning upside down, and becoming their cognitive behavioral therapist, occupational therapist, and speech and language pragmatic constructor all at once,” Manning said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “There are still only 24 hours in a day, and I am not limitless.”
The lack of assistance from the university has forced many Georgetown faculty to make sacrifices in dependent care, according to Kerry Danner, an adjunct professor of theology who is both a mother and foster parent as well as the primary caretaker of her father-in-law.
“It becomes a real challenge both in terms of how to be present for your child, how to meet your responsibilities at home and how to meet the needs of your students,” Danner said in an interview with The Hoya. “My youngest, Kailea, is too young to entertain herself. She’s 2. So the screen becomes a babysitter, but in the long run, it’s not healthy for young children to move to that level of electronics. And certainly, there’s layers of family guilt there with that solution.”
An alternative to screen time is day care, but for Danner and her partner, day care comes with the anxiety of exposing family members to COVID-19. Day cares are responsible for 13.8 percent of COVID-19 outbreaks in Washington, D.C., an equal percentage to bars and restaurants, according to data collected by the D.C. government.
More personal child care solutions, such as in-home child care providers or smaller child care centers, are safer but also more expensive and force faculty to choose between cost and safety, according to Danner.
An anonymous faculty testimonial from the October memo highlighted that the market rate for hired child care help in the D.C. area is $25 per hour, significantly higher than the median nationwide market rate of $11.65, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Georgetown administration has taken steps to respond to the concerns of faculty and professors, including convening a working group to address the key points presented in the memo, a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“In recognition of the challenges faced by many community members, the Office of the Chief Operating Officer and the Faculty Senate have convened a standing committee to provide continued input on dependent care support and resources provided by the University,” the university spokesperson wrote. “We remain committed to supporting our campus community through the COVID-19 pandemic and recognize the challenges faced by many in our community, including those who are responsible for serving as the caregivers of family members.”
In response to the memo, university administrators also expanded the GUCares Employee Emergency Fund, a fund to support full-time faculty and staff with both family care and professional responsibilities, raising the total amount available from $1,000 to $3,000. However, many professors have raised concerns that the increase still does not amount to enough support and that the fund only addresses short-term emergencies for recipients.
The university is also examining the possibility of reopening Hoya Kids, a care facility for children of faculty, staff and students at Georgetown. They also hired Elizabeth Stanley in Oct. 2020 to serve as a dependent care resource coordinator to support professors and faculty with all care needs, according to the university spokesperson.
Finding a Support System
Aside from the high cost of child care, professors have had to grapple with additional hardships, reimagining their teaching environments and forgoing professional projects such as books and research to get by. Many professors deal with less-than-ideal teaching spaces and decreased productivity, according to Dagomar Degroot, an associate professor in the history department and a signee of the October memo.
“I was forced to work from a closet because there was just not enough space in our little apartment for two kids and an office. I didn’t have as much time to work, and I found it much harder to concentrate,” Degroot wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I had to sacrifice those aspects of my job that I deemed non-essential. My next book will now also be delayed by at least a year, delaying my career progression.”
Time spent with family and time spent teaching are the most inflexible demands on faculty’s time, and the pressure to choose between children and career is one felt by many, especially with new challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, Degroot wrote.
Overwhelmed with the sudden need to simultaneously manage their professional careers and their children’s education without the help of individual teacher aids they would typically rely on, Cline and her husband decided to homeschool their children to better manage the demands of online school.
“We decided over the summer to homeschool our daughters. Although the burden on us would be heavier in terms of teaching them, at least we could manage it around our work schedules,” Cline said.
For many professors, the only way to navigate sudden schedule changes has been to turn to friends and colleagues for personal and professional support.
Cline, for example, whose fifth book was under contract, needed to send her publisher a manuscript by the end of the summer; as a result of the strained spring, she was unable to accomplish as much as she would have hoped and had to write the entire manuscript over the summer. Fortunately, though, she was able to turn to a good friend who, in addition to helping her at the beginning of the pandemic, allowed Cline to write the book at her house.
“I would go and spend significant time there writing because it’s very, very difficult to work at home,” Cline said.
Degroot also received support from his colleagues in the history department, including history professor Katherine Benton-Cohen, who lent her car to him.
“Katie loaned us her car for months, an extraordinary example of generosity that immeasurably improved our lives at the beginning of the pandemic,” Degroot wrote.
This kind of mutual assistance has helped to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 throughout the university community. Above all else, these hardships have created a greater level of solidarity between faculty caregivers in the Georgetown community, according to Degroot.
Mind the Gap
Despite the personal sacrifices faculty have made and the help some have received, some instructors have had a notably more arduous time in receiving assistance from Georgetown.
Even among full-time faculty, there are discrepancies: Full-time non-tenure line professors, who are not on track to receive tenure, are not eligible for the same benefits as tenure-line faculty. Until 2018, for instance, the university did not grant equal parental leave time to FTNTL professors.
FTNTL, untenured, part-time, and graduate faculty are stressed because they have fewer resources available, according to Christopher Carroll, a part-time sociology professor. For example, the GUCares Fund is available only to full-time faculty.
The COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund, another grant program through the Office of Faculty and Staff Benefits, is available to all faculty regardless of their tenure status and can serve to ameliorate dependent care expenses. There is overall unequal financial support offered to full-time and part-time faculty, however, Carroll said.
“Almost every adjunct I know, especially because they are on the young side, have children. But most — not all, but most — of these funds and initiatives aren’t even available to us. It’s a little bit disheartening,” Carroll said in an interview with The Hoya.
In addition to professors without full-time status, female professors have been acutely impacted by many changes to caregiving during the pandemic, according to Degroot.
“As the petition makes plain, many caregivers at Georgetown are women, and their careers could suffer most from the pandemic,” Degroot wrote.
Women have been disproportionately burdened by the pandemic, facing higher unemployment rates than men despite holding a roughly equal share of the job market in February 2020. In December, women accounted for all of the 140,000 net job losses in America. Furthermore, economists project that the pandemic will widen the existing gender wage gap by five percentage points, so that women make 76 cents to the average man’s dollar.
The October memo underlines these gender disparities.
An anonymous testimonial in the memo reads, “Many men in my department have been publishing public-facing editorials about Covid-19 while women’s productivity has dwindled significantly and for many of us completely stopped.”
In addition to causing a productivity drain for working women, the pandemic has forced women to leave the workforce in huge numbers. Cline said the burden of managing a career and childcare simultaneously, while already difficult, has become nearly unmanageable for many women over the past year.
“This is a time where we’re struggling, especially those of us with children. I understand why 800,000 women left the workforce in September alone. I totally get it,” Cline said. “I’ve had that thought myself because it’s already too much, and then you have a pandemic, and then it’s really too much.”
Although the university has taken steps since October to address the demands put forth by the memo, professors like Degroot still fear the possible long-term consequences of this pandemic if faculty caregivers continue not to receive the assistance they need.
“I worried — and worry — that, without sustained action by university administrators, the pandemic will compound existing inequalities at Georgetown and across higher education,” Degroot wrote.
This article was updated Feb. 19 to clarify Dagomar Degroot’s status as an associate professor, Katherine Benton-Cohen’s status as a professor of history and to reflect that Georgetown University hired a dependent care resource coordinator.