The COVID-19 Caretaking Crisis: How Faculty Can Support Student Parents during Virtual Learning

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), approximately 22% of students in U.S. community colleges and public four-year universities are parenting at least one dependent under 18 years old. This is a significant number of students whose lives have been extraordinarily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered schools and daycares across the country, making student parents responsible for the full-time caretaking and education of their children–on top of their own educational pursuits. How, then, are faculty to respond to these new realities in ways that are equitable within this new virtual learning environment? In this blog, I focus on my campus, Fresno State, to highlight the challenges student parents have experienced during the COVID-19 crisis and share my recommendations for how faculty and campuses can support student parents through policies and practices that emphasize privacy, flexibility, basic needs resources, recognition, and data.

When Fresno State faculty and students abruptly shifted to remote learning in spring 2020, so did the school-age children of these students, demanding that student parents figure out how to manage their children’s education in addition to their own. Some experienced loss of income and others have had to take on additional shifts to maintain their jobs and prepare for an unpredictable future. Many of these students have also been thrust prematurely into the “sandwich generation,” as they are now expected not only to support their own children, but also to run errands for and track down vaccine appointments for their parents, many of whom are more physically vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Despite these challenges, most student parents remain ambitious, committed, and hopeful about their education. It is in the best interest of our university system and our state to ensure that these students remain on track to finish their degrees. The recovery of California depends on it. At Fresno State, I have called on my colleagues and university leaders to lean into our mission to “boldly educate and empower students” in ways that place their lives, and the lives of their children, at the center.

The fall semester presented many challenges for student parents. In the California Central Valley, nearly all K-12 schools were operating virtually and childcare centers found themselves facing new guidelines for capacity and sanitation that put strains on their ability to serve their regular number of clients. The virus’s high rate of transmissibility and the threat it poses to older populations means that student parents’ usual forms of emergency childcare–parents, friends, neighbors–are no longer options. Additionally, virtual schooling has exacerbated technology inequities among student parents, many of whom have limited internet access, low bandwidth or low internet speeds, or do not have enough devices to support the entire family’s schooling needs. Aside from the strain associated with sharing their digital learning devices with their children, student parents are also struggling to find distraction-free time and space to study and attend classes, and may also be caring for other family members, including elderly parents and grandparents. The fluidity of the pandemic means that student parents are also readying themselves to prepare their children to return to school when schools are permitted to open their doors, ushering in a new set of challenges, scheduling changes, and anxieties about possible increased exposure to the virus. Without a doubt, these students’ skills and strengths are being tested in this moment.

While most student parents are first generation and students of color, the policy and practices created to serve these populations do not always serve student parents equitably. Supporting student parents specifically as student parents ensures that we attend to the complexities that affect them uniquely. The extra time and effort taken to strategize around these students’ realities has the potential to pay off many times over. The data are clear: any investment made to support student parents–from childcare to financial aid to policy–has an incredibly high return, particularly for single mothers. For example, according to the IWPR, a $14 billion investment in childcare for single mothers would result in an $89 billion return in tax contributions and reductions in public assistance funding. In the absence of childcare, classroom policies that support students who are experiencing childcare challenges have the potential to be just as impactful.

The recommendations below are informed by student voices and by guidance gleaned from the many conversations happening in higher education around student equity in virtual learning spaces. Importantly, these suggestions are not exhaustive. They provide a baseline of equity-focused guidance for faculty to feel empowered to support the success—and the resilience—of our student parents and, ultimately, all students in caregiving roles.

Recommendations

Securing privacy. Faculty should reconsider any policies that require students to appear on camera for every Zoom session. Students may desire privacy to breastfeed a child and/or to tend to children without their minors appearing on camera. Give students the choice to turn off their cameras, mute their microphones, and participate in the discussion through the chat box or a document (such as a Google doc or slideshow) that can be shared and edited by the class in real time. If you are recording a session and minors are present, ask that all students confirm that they are aware that they are being recorded.

Attendance policies in synchronous classes. Because several members in a single household may be engaged in online learning, attending class in real time can be challenging. Recording lectures and real-time class sessions for students to view on their own provides them with access to valuable class content that they may struggle to access or focus on during regular class time. Attendance policies that penalize students for not participating in a Zoom session during regular class time are detrimental to students who are experiencing challenges outside their control. Consider making attendance highly recommended but optional, and making all material from the live session available to students who cannot attend.

Due dates. Consider having flexible due dates and allowing assignments to be turned in late without penalties. Offering flexibility in these areas assists students who are sharing devices, data, and work space with their children and other students living in the home. Additionally, students should be provided with wide time windows for completing exams, so they can work on exams when their children are asleep or when their children are not using the computer for school work. Some faculty are using what’s called an “extension time bank” to allow students a set number of extra days during the term that they can use to turn in work “late” without penalty. Students can then plan when to “cash in” their allotment, based on which weeks are particularly hectic for them. This also reduces last-minute emails from students requesting extensions.

Pregnant students. Title IX policies related to pregnant students continue to apply. All campus Title IX web pages should have information explicitly for and about pregnant and breastfeeding students, such as this one on the Fresno State web page. The Pregnant Scholar also provides helpful and accessible guidance on how faculty can help protect the rights of pregnant students. Additionally, each campus’s office for Services for Students with Disabilities works with Title IX on accommodations related to pregnancy. Pregnant students are feeling especially vulnerable as the strain on hospitals increases. Also, with physicians in high demand and rigorous social distancing protocols in place, pregnant students are facing fewer scheduling options for appointments. Should students need to attend medical appointments during class time, both faculty and students should be aware that, by law, absences for prenatal, hospitalization, and post-delivery exams must be excused. Faculty should also be flexible with pregnant students who are experiencing complications or general malaise due to pregnancy.

Resources and information. Campuses are largely virtual, but basic needs and emergency fund programs continue to be highly utilized by students. Food pantries should be especially sensitive to the needs of student parents. The Fresno State Student Cupboard is a leader in these efforts, providing free food, baby food and formula when available, and free disposable diapers through their diaper bank. All students, regardless of their parenting status, may receive free diapers. Additionally, through Project HOPE, a clinical case manager is able to connect student parents to off-campus basic needs and mental health resources. Health counseling services should also be encouraged. Most CSU counselors are “student parent-competent” and can help these students manage their many roles.

Importantly, all faculty should not only learn about the types of support available on their campus, but also create time and space for conversations about the best ways to access them and their importance to student success. Consider posting links or modules with basic needs resources onto the class pages of the learning management system. Faculty should also be clear with their students about what they cannot provide, such as professional or legal counseling. It is within the scope of duty of all faculty, however, to point students to relevant resources and empower them to seek what they need to support their success

Final Thoughts: A Call for Recognition and Data

Aside from parent-friendly class policies and access to resources, student parents deeply appreciate recognition. Historically, higher education has not included parenting students in its narrative of who our students are, and this leads to policies that produce feelings and experiences of marginalization and disconnect for parent students. Further, the lack of institutional data on student parents makes this demographic one of our most hidden populations on campus, even though it is also one of our largest. Because data about these students are not regularly gathered or analyzed, our institutions are less likely to include the needs of parenting students in their student success programming.

The CSU does not widely collect data on student parents. During the admissions process, applicants are asked to share household size and dependent information, but this only provides data on incoming students who already have children; students who become parents or caretakers after they enroll are not counted. Fresno State is the only CSU campus that has created a mechanism for collecting data on students who become parents after enrolling and who voluntarily share this information; challenges in informing students about this data collection process mean that we still lack a complete picture.

The act of recognizing student parents in our classes is a simple gesture that strengthens these students’ sense of belonging and agency as students at Fresno State and in the CSU. As faculty, we are in positions of partnership where we can support these students through extraordinary circumstances—even as some of us are working through our own parenting challenges. What we do today for our student parents has implications not only for their own success, but also for the success of their children and generations to come.

Recent News and Resources on Student Parents
From the IWPR: “Student parents in the COVID-19 pandemic: Heightened need & the imperative for strengthened support,” by L.R. Cruse, S. Contreras-Mendez, and T. Holtzman, Apr. 14, 2020. https://iwpr.org/publications/student-parents-in-the-covid-19-pandemic/

From the Fresno Bee: “Students with kids are now teachers during coronavirus. How can California colleges help?” by A. Panoo, Apr. 9, 2020.
https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/education-lab/article241667561.html

From CalMatters: “A new reality for student parents: Teaching their children’s classes while taking their own,” by A. Watson, Apr. 29, 2020.
https://calmatters.org/education/higher-education/2020/04/a-new-reality-for-student-parents-teaching-their-childrens-classes-while-taking-their-own/?fbclid=IwAR0NKfHRW7iOeHW1fYWtSXw8siy7uW7LsEZ6o0gv03Ca5wgOWczVHZ-D5c8From the Fresno Bee and Ed Lab Live: “Watch: Ed Lab forum on student parents in college, their challenges and questions, Apr. 15, 2020. https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/education-lab/article242010641.html

From the Fresno Bee and Ed Lab Live: “Watch: Ed Lab forum on student parents in college, their challenges and questions, Apr. 15, 2020. https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/education-lab/article242010641.html

 

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