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News, Science & Research

‘This is a very challenging time’: Teaching, researching, parenting amid COVID-19

Faculty share struggles, University aims to address concerns of managing family, professional responsibilities during the pandemic

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2020

The University has seen an increase in applications for childcare subsidies from faculty due to the impact of the pandemic and the shift to virtual learning.

As students log onto Zoom to watch their professors lecture, faculty’s children also slink behind screens, their needs posing challenges to faculty’s academic and research responsibilities. 

Six University faculty members spoke to The Herald about challenges posed by the pandemic, particularly with regard to child care, with many feeling that although it has been difficult to be a parent-professor, they are luckier than many other professionals.

For Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences David Badre, the shift to remote work has made conducting research “harder in almost every aspect.”

Badre, who has written an article about the challenges faced by faculty managing child care while conducting their own remote work, views the workload as “more demanding” than most other multitasking because “you really have to give (children) your attention,” he said.

A parent scientist himself, Badre hasn’t been able to collect much data this semester. When schools moved to remote learning in the spring, Badre needed to allocate time to help his children navigate online schoolwork. Now that his sons are back to in-person school, Badre sees “a big difference” in his work efficiency. 

Badre also worries that the pandemic will have a greater impact on scientists of underrepresented backgrounds, and that the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on these scientists could hinder inclusivity efforts within the scientific community.

Though professors often spend a lot of time teaching students, teaching their own children is a challenging task. 

Associate Professor of Education and Economics Matthew Kraft, who has been studying the effects of the pandemic on K-12 teaching, said that this multitasking, alongside managing the “mental and emotional stress of the moment,” can be challenging for teachers, too.

Kraft has a four-year-old and six-year-old, who have been attending school remotely since the spring semester. “I’m kind of an assistant teacher for pre-K and first grade on top of being a professor at Brown and teaching a graduate course,” he said. “I go from teaching the alphabet to teaching advanced causal statistics within a half hour.”

But Kraft has also had to slow down his research to best support his children and his graduate students. “That’s the tradeoff I’ve had to make, but I’m very fortunate to have the support of my family,” he said, adding that he feels “privileged to have a more flexible schedule to be able to work from home.”

For Assistant Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Oriel FeldmanHall — whose children, at the start of the pandemic, were four months old and two years old — child-care support through school was not an option. 

To balance remote responsibilities and facilitate her continued research, FeldmanHall turned to a full-time child caretaker. “If I didn’t have a nanny, it would be incredibly stressful to do what I’m doing,” she said.

This semester, FeldmanHall is teaching CLPS 0700: “Social Psychology,” for which she has also spent time supporting her students’ mental well-being at a time when they are in “a more precarious and vulnerable state,” she said.

On top of teaching and parenting, faculty responsibility can extend out to other types of extra work. For Deak Nabers, that means in addition to other work and stress, trying to find time to craft a book. 

As associate Professor of English, Nabers, who previously commuted to Providence, is currently teaching a University course remotely from New York this semester while his 11-year-old son attends hybrid schooling in the city. 

Nabers is also working on a book, and while there are aspects of the writing process he is better able to do remotely, like reading novels, other parts, such as archival research, have been halted, he said.

With remote learning, Nabers and his spouse “have to make sure (their son) is set up and doing things all right,” and “ultimately, that’s pretty taxing.”

Through the pandemic, Nabers has realized that he is “pretty good at educating people that are pretty advanced (in their learning trajectory), but when it comes to teaching eight- or nine-year-olds, it’s more challenging.”

To avoid losing additional time from his work, Nabers wakes up at 5 a.m. to work before the rest of his family gets up. “My entire schedule has been rerouted,” he said. 

Despite various challenges the pandemic has posed, Nabers said that “professors — at least humanities professors with tenure — have been … very lucky.”

While many faculty have learned a lot about parenting during a pandemic since March, Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs Emily Oster is currently using those lessons to help others.  

When schools went virtual in the spring, Oster and her husband, who is also a professor, lost their main source of child care and found themselves spending more time parenting and supervising their two children, who were finishing third grade and pre-K.

This fall, Oster feels “very lucky that the kids are now back in (in-person) school,” enabling her and her husband to resume their work lives. 

Oster had been sharing parenting advice long before the start of the pandemic through her research-based newsletter. One of her blog posts, which discussed the difficult decisions parents face during the pandemic, inspired the development of a child-care decision tool by healthcare company Maven Clinic. The tool helps parents structure their choices regarding caretaking needs resulting from the pandemic.

To help safely facilitate the national return of in-person school, Oster has been working on the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard in partnership with school associations and the software company Qualtrics. The project collects data from participating schools to understand their different COVID-19 safety precautions and the number of associated cases. With this information, the goal is to ultimately “try to understand better the landscape around safe reopening for K-12,” she said.

Through all these difficulties, the University tried to adapt policy to fit parents’ needs. 

CLPS professor Ruth Colwill, chair of the Committee on Faculty Equity and Diversity, said that bringing faculty issues to administrators is key. This semester, she said, the committee made recommendations to University administrators on how to lessen the burden of the pandemic on faculty.

Colwill added that the committee, consisting of six faculty representatives, recognizes that it will “need a very broad approach” to represent faculty of various backgrounds. The committee is working on sending faculty a survey asking about issues like their caretaking demands and the impact of such demands on their work. 

Even before the pandemic began, the committee dedicated “a great deal of time” to discussing on-campus provision of child care. Yet, despite earlier efforts, “the conclusion was that it was too expensive for Brown … to expand the program,” Colwill said.

But the disparities in child care during COVID-19 remain a predominant concern. “It takes a lot of time and energy to home-educate your children or ensure that they’re online during remote education, and that generally falls on one partner in a relationship,” Colwill said.

Women scientists’ publication submissions have declined in comparison to men’s since stay-at-home orders were put in place, which may be due to the demands of child care, according to a study published in Nature.

“On average, women have been differentially disadvantaged by COVID,” she said. “They’ve borne the brunt of a lot of the stressful aspects like child care.” 

Faculty have consequently had to sacrifice certain aspects of their work during the pandemic. 

“Individuals are just putting their research on hold because that’s the one thing that you have control over,” Colwill said, whereas “you can’t put classes on hold.”

Though disparities in access to child care at the University remain, there have been other actions taken that have assisted faculty. 

The University has continued to provide some child-care resources to eligible faculty. The University’s Child Care Subsidy Program has historically helped subsidize child-care costs for eligible employees looking after children between birth to age six, wrote University Human Resources’ Administrative and Communications Specialist Jessica Pontarelli in an email to The Herald.

To mitigate the effects of the pandemic, from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31 of this year, the 2020 program was expanded to include dependents ages seven to 12, Pontarelli wrote.

The University has “seen an increase in the number of faculty and staff applications submitted this year for the child care subsidy in comparison to previous years,” according to Pontarelli. This academic year, faculty applications rose to 21, with a 90 percent acceptance rate, compared to 10 applications submitted and accepted last year. 

In addition, “a one year contract extension was offered to tenure track faculty last spring,” she wrote, which was a helpful first step in giving back some time faculty have lost during the pandemic.

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