Even as we hear good news about a vaccine on the horizon, Covid-19 cases are surging across North America and Europe. Although no one is spared from pandemic-related stress, many of the parents with whom I work are at their wits’ end as they struggle to keep up with homeschool and childcare at the same time as juggling all other aspects of an academic career. Other parents who were working with me pre-pandemic have had to take an indefinite pause from coaching—with everything on their plates, they can’t even fit in 30 minutes to strategize.

While I can help parents to set boundaries and negotiate for resources to free up some time, the current challenges reveal flaws in how the work of caregiving is valued in our society. Statistically, the burden of caregiving has fallen disproportionately on women faculty members whose research productivity has taken a hit compared to their male counterparts. The problems go beyond what any individual can solve. Despite policies extending the tenure clock, my clients with caregiving responsibilities are skeptical about whether evaluators will really look at their CV as if an entire academic year had not happened. What can be done? 

A few partial solutions include:

  • Universities can add language about Covid-19 tenure clock extensions in letters that go out to external reviewers in order to mitigate bias related to lower productivity during this time.
  • Internal evaluators can be reminded that a break in productivity during or following the pandemic should not be considered in evaluating a professor for promotion. 
  • Those with substantial caregiving responsibilities can be offered teaching or service relief.
  • Departments can offer their faculty members support including graders, editors, and grant writing assistance, and can pay undergraduate students to provide research and/or administrative support.
  • Universities can pay undergraduate students to offer online story hours and tutoring to the young children of employees to free up additional time for parents, as has been done at the University of Chicago.
  • Institutions can provide emergency back-up care for both children and adults, such as this program offered by Boston University.
  • Caregivers can be given the choice to teach asynchronously, if preferred.
  • Institutions can think creatively and design part-time options for tenure-track faculty members.
  • Often, even when institutions offer benefits such as paid time off, no one takes advantage of them because faculty members receive mixed signals about whether it is really acceptable to do so. Higher ed administrators at all levels can repeatedly communicate “yes, we support this, take the leave, it’s normal to be less productive now.” 
  • Leaders can suggest that this might be a good year to skip hosting an event or overhauling the curriculum, making everyone’s load a bit lighter.

Ideally, higher education leaders and faculty members who are not currently parenting young children will take the lead in promoting these family-friendly policies. Those who need them the most are least able to add “self-advocacy” to their to-do lists.

I’d love to hear what other ideas are being considered or implemented at your own institutions (or should be considered) to support those with caregiving responsibilities.