Caregiving and COVID: responses from faculty

We write with thanks to faculty who responded to our request for information about the diverse challenges caregivers are experiencing with work demands in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a few days of our e-letter, another 100 signatories joined the initial group of 50 petitioners: as we expected, this issue is a significant concern to many of our members all across campus. The petition asked that USFA survey the membership on the scope and nature of caregiving responsibilities and needs, and then begin a discussion with the employer about how to support faculty in balancing the demands of academic work, parenting, and caregiving. 

We have established a small working group from the initial signatories, along with a USFA representative and Vice-Provost, Faculty Relations Ken Wilson, to start discussing workable supports to those caregivers in need. 

The responses to our e-letter were heartfelt and poignant, expressing a myriad of reactions including support and concern for faculty caregivers and, from caregivers themselves, expressions ranging from mild unease and exasperation to extreme anxiety and frustration, and sometimes anger. Faculty made it very clear that expectations for productivity and work schedules must be adjusted with flexibility and understanding prioritized. Themes of the responses included:

  • a number of faculty, a number of whom are single parents, have multiple very young children and no care outside the home
  • faculty caregivers experience significant distractions as a result of having all the family at home, especially with young children and homeschooling demands (it is still unknown exactly how schools will proceed with opening in the fall)
  • multiple family members at home means several people trying to access equipment and Internet videoconferencing at once 
  • some faculty have taken family members out of care homes because of the risk and/or the isolation, and these situations present unique and difficult challenges
  • committees should be directed to consider caregiving responsibilities in their deliberations during the merit process for the 2019–20 and 2020–21 academic years
  • the university’s EFAP, with offers of counselling, is not going to solve the difficulties faculty face: as one member expressed it, faculty are not the problem and are not what needs to be fixed
  • duties assigned may need to be adjusted to take into account the demands of caregiving during the COVID shut-down; reduce the expectations in the assigned duties for those with caregiving needs, for infants, school-aged children, elderly, sick etc.
  • the level of care for faculty in these situations is inconsistent: our administration is very concerned about the impact of childcare on student learning (and rightfully so), but at the College level, some Deans and Vice-Deans have been entirely unsympathetic to the same issues faced by instructors
  • guaranteed childcare spots would help (as they would have pre-COVID)
  • faculty need to know explicitly what accommodations can be made
  • the university needs a strategy to accommodate faculty who are caregivers and who cannot possibly return to full-time work without facing exhaustion and burnout

Some potential accommodations were proposed for discussion (based on individual circumstances such as the age and number of children and whether they have special needs; the degree of dependence of the elderly or disabled; the availability of spousal or family help with the care, and so on):

  • partial paid leave to employees in the worse situations
  • reduced duties such as: 
    – fewer students and/or marking help
    – less administrative duties suspension of committee service
    – postponement of some projects
    – formal suspension of research performance expectations (especially now that people are being designated “not research active” or similar terminology, and consequently given more teaching
    – other reductions in workloads, which are already substantially increased by the need to redesign courses and master online delivery

The many responses we received made it very clear that there has to be an understanding at this university that some duties cannot be accomplished in this environment, and might have to be relinquished or postponed until schools and services return to normal. Faculty need some certainty or guidelines about expectations for caregivers. We will keep you updated as discussions with the working group proceed.