Illustration showing a masked parent holding a small newborn child in one arm, and with the other arm, holding up a large red-coloured COVID-19 particle, while standing on a cliff. The cliff is separated from a second cliff by a growing gap/crevice, rocks are breaking off. On the second cliff, there are depictions of science: a beaker, a rocket, three gears and a planet.

Step up academia, parents still need support

Academic institutions must still do better to protect caregivers, now and into the future

Parents, particularly women and historically excluded groups, have faced disproportionate career losses throughout the pandemic. In the face of the record-high COVID rates of the Omicron surge, parents are exhausted. Titles of recently published articles drive this point home, again and again: Being a working parent sucks right now; Omicron means parents are doing it all again, except this time dead inside; The agony of parents with kids under 5; No Shots, No Daycare: Parents of Kids Under 5 Stuck in Grueling Limbo; Daycares are shutting down and parents are ‘tired of being tired’; Latest COVID surge pushes parents to next-level stress; COVID parenting has passed the point of absurdity. What was once unprecedented has become an unwelcome norm in our lives.

Women in science have experienced career disruptions that will take years, or even decades, to undo. In academia, where women and marginalized identities remain underrepresented due to systematic barriers on the long road to tenure-track positions that frequently conflict with desires for family building, it seems progress towards equity is quickly unraveling. Data show that pandemic setbacks have disproportionately fallen on women and early career researchers in academia, with other studies forecasting that the nature of these setbacks implies that these disparities may persist for years. Here we focus on academic women parents, who continue to bear the brunt of childcare gaps due to the pandemic. These problems are not new, but the pandemic is exposing them in new ways with much greater consequences.

Although many in academic leadership positions are eager to move past the pandemic, we implore those in such positions to face the reality of this situation: we are facing massive losses in the workforce concentrated in already underrepresented groups, historic levels of anxiety surrounding health concerns, and impossible choices about how to maintain productive careers while keeping our children safe. Women, parents, caregivers, and immunocompromised people need support now. Ignoring this only worsens the unrealistic nature of our current demands. Furthermore, we need forward-thinking and ambitious visions for how to repair the setbacks faced by disproportionately affected groups once we eventually emerge from the pandemic.

Illustration showing a parent embracing a young child (both are masked). On either side, there is a red-coloured swarm of microbes (depicting COVID-19). The swarm is coming from four individuals who are unmasked, speaking, etc. In the background, there are buildings: a school, homes, etc.

Parents are facing massive life disruptions with illness, school and daycare closures, and quarantine periods. All of society is suffering as a result of the overwhelmed healthcare system and continued disruptions to supply chains and businesses. For many parents who have sacrificed so much to keep their kids safe over the past two years, it now feels nearly inevitable that our kids will get sick. For those with kids under five who remain ineligible for vaccination, this is particularly hard to bear, as no one wants to willingly expose their child to covid to “just get it over with.” On one hand, we have been told (even by other mothers) not to worry because the risks to children under five are smaller than the rest of the population. But we also know that our children are at risk for serious breathing problems due to their relatively smaller airways, and that there are many unknowns related to long-term health consequences, such as the recently reported elevated risk for post-COVID diabetes in pediatric patients. There is no clear end in sight to this unknown state of risk, given excruciating clinical trial extensions for immunization in this age group.

Meanwhile, most of America is trying to move on. With U.S. academic institutions facing steep drops in enrollment over the last two years, the pressure to return and maintain in-person learning experiences is huge. For the many academic parents teaching courses and labs, this can only be accomplished with functioning and safe childcare. When childcare centers are open, the infectiousness of Omicron truly makes this a choice between maintaining a career or avoiding a COVID-19 infection. The pressure on parents isn’t just huge — it’s enormous, and soul-crushing. The situation is further exacerbated by politically and economically driven, anti-science decisions, such as bans on masks and vaccination, and requiring in-person teaching with little or no flexibility. Many of our colleagues are at institutions with no options to move classes virtual, even as infections in courses skyrocket or childcare options become untenable, given high COVID rates in daycares and schools. In essence, while some of our colleagues and students may be feeling a boost of confidence from the data showing that Omicron is milder in vaccinated individuals, many parents of children younger than five are still operating in the mindframe common in 2020–2021 before vaccinations were widely available. This disparity puts parents in an impossible position: defeated by uncertainties about the risks to children, but also beholden to institutions forcing returns to in-person instruction under the assumption that it is actually safe to resume college campus activities. This is unacceptable.

As we have previously discussed, masking, testing, and vaccination are pillars of good COVID policy. We need high quality masks, readily available for free to campus populations. We need testing. Despite the challenges to testing logistics posed by high rates of positive tests, it is crucial that we understand disease prevalence if we want to maintain in-person learning on campuses. If testing logistical issues are insurmountable, this is a clear indication that instruction should be moved to virtual until positivity rates decrease. Other decisions directly sacrifice the health of immunocompromised people and those too young to be vaccinated in our communities. We need people to get vaccinated and boosted, and we need vaccines for children under five years of age. We also need global vaccine equity: none of us are safe until all of us are safe. These minimum requirements will help to keep us healthy. But we need so much more to actually function in our workplaces.

We recommend immediate action by those in academic leadership positions on the following fronts:

1. Flexibility in course delivery modes and working location. In the short term, instructors need flexibility and the decision power to pivot from in person to virtual instruction without onerous and time consuming bureaucratic hurdles. This should be accompanied with clear messaging to all levels of administration and faculty so that the campus culture supports the most vulnerable to make the decisions they need. Risk tolerances in the pandemic state are highly variable and there is no correct answer for what is appropriate risk for all employees. A faculty or staff member with an immunocompromised child under the age of five at home should not be forced to make the same decisions as those without health concerns or dependent care responsibilities. Although the ADA accommodation process can sometimes be helpful in creating equity in such situations, it is far too slow to employ in the current crisis-level environment in which we are operating. We emphasize that there are far-reaching benefits to those in leadership who can offer a supportive and flexible approach to employees in these circumstances, rather than placing themselves in an adversarial position by requiring in-person instruction/meetings at all costs. These are trying times for all, and in addition to concerns with retention, the risk of large-scale faculty disengagement is high without supportive leadership. A culture of flexibility and support for faculty, staff, students, and postdocs will help to retain individuals from under-represented groups who we need, and who belong, in science and academia.

2. Emergency leave contingency plans. Universities should put in place policies and contingency plans for emergency leaves and extend sick leave for COVID-19 related needs. Given the prevalence of illness we can expect as classes resume, many instructors and staff will need time away due to their own illness or the illness of dependents. Many staff are required to take sick leave when they cannot work in person, and if there is not enough accrued, they end up taking unpaid leave, thus incentivizing people coming to work in person while still sick or avoiding testing. Departments can help to lessen the chaos associated with emergency faculty sick leaves by putting in place plans for substitute instruction should designated instructors get sick. Additionally, emergency childcare funding would help in allowing parents to continue work while daycares and schools are closed. If daycare centers close due to positive cases, parents could be forced to hire in-home care that is often more costly than group facilities, while often continuing to pay for nonexistent care from the closed daycare center. Additionally, if centers are open, but COVID-19 rates are high, parents may choose to keep their children home, but still pay the very expensive tuition to keep their children’s spot, leaving no funds for additional childcare. Putting emergency childcare funding programs together at an institutional level will require creativity in how to fairly implement them, as well as in targeting sources for funding, but this work is well worth the effort. These contingency funds and programs might mean the difference between retention or loss for women in science, who have spent decades building their careers.

3. Planning future policies to ameliorate pandemic career setbacks. In the long term, the careers of those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic will need support to recover, and this may be a long-term process, even after the acute setbacks of the pandemic have eased. Strategies that will help this process include releases from service duties, teaching releases, extra support for teaching assistants, and targeted pilot seed funding programs. Although tenure clock stops due to the pandemic may be helpful in some cases, they also have long-lasting negative impacts on salary. This detrimental effect could be addressed through raises that are not associated with promotion. Many of these strategies focus on support at the institutional level, but we also encourage funding agencies to commit to both short-term and long-term strategies that will support scientists that have faced substantial pandemic setbacks (NSF is currently collecting ideas through its covid DEI challenge). This should include extending or adding flexibility to proposal deadlines during the present Omicron surge and future surges, as well as designing targeted funding programs to help support and re-start research of impacted scientists. We also highlight the need to ensure that review panels remain diverse despite the time constraints that may currently prevent many women and parents from serving in this capacity. We encourage those in leadership positions to immediately begin work on implementing programs that address the long-term disparities that the pandemic has imposed on the scientific and academic community.

The pandemic has amplified nearly every disadvantage that women in STEMM already face. Though we are all ready for the pandemic to be over, these burdens on parents and caregivers, and women in particular, continue. It is crucial that we, especially leaders in academic institutions, think carefully about how to support these hardest-hit scientists, now and well into the future. Acknowledging the continuing struggle is an important first step in addressing it, but the time for action is now.

To close, we turn directly to more words from parents in science. These are the voices who need support:

This nightmare just continues. We made it for two days at the university daycare before an exposure in our toddler’s classroom.

I came back from maternity leave into a pandemic. I keep hoping for a chance to be productive (employable!) again but the gap just. keeps. getting. Bigger.

It’s so exhausting. I don’t know what normal feels like, still just going on one day at a time…

If anything the burden has only gotten worse now. Everyone else seems ready to move on which makes things infinitely harder when you have a child who can’t yet be vaccinated.

Illustration showing two scientists of colour in the centre, one is masked and looking down, the second is looking to the right. In the background, there is a red line dividing the image in two. The lower half showing COVID-19 particles, big and small. The upper half shows a vaccine vial, a mask, and three adults (an older adult, a pregnant person and a parent) and a child.

Contributors

Catherine (Katie) Wagner (she/her/hers) is an evolutionary biologist who studies processes contributing to the origins and maintenance of earth’s biodiversity. She holds a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, and a BA in biology-geology from Whitman College. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Wyoming. She is on Twitter @cewagnerlab.

Jessica L. Metcalf (she/her/hers) is a microbiome scientist who leads highly interdisciplinary microbiome research projects that span the fields of forensics, animal science, and health by combining experimental ecology, large genomic datasets, and bioinformatics tools. She has a BS in chemistry from the University of Georgia, and a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from University of Colorado Boulder. She is an Associate Professor at Colorado State University., where she co-chairs the Council for Gender Equity on the Faculty. She is an Azrieli CIFAR Global Scholar. She is also on twitter @DirtySci

Elizabeth (Liz) McCullagh (she/her/hers) is a neuroscientist who specializes in how animals, including humans, process sound location information in the brain. Her education is in Biology with her BS and MS from Virginia Tech and PhD from University of Illinois Chicago. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oklahoma State University and member of the 500 Women Scientists’ leadership team. Liz is an advocate for parental issues in the workplace, and co-founder of Milk and Cookies, a lactation support group on the University of Colorado Anschutz campus. She is also on Twitter @ZaarlyLiz.

Tanya Dapkey (she/her/hers) is an entomologist who studies macroinvertebrates in freshwater ecosystems as bioindicators of water quality. Her Masters is from the University of Pennsylvania where she integrated stream ecology and DNA barcoding. She currently works at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. She is also on Twitter @tanyadapkey.

Theresa Jedd is a political scientist specializing in environmental topics. She is particularly motivated to understand how policies and proactive planning can solve water, energy and forest conservation challenges. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University and did her postdoc at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently working 50% of the time as an instructor and researcher at the Technical University of Munich.

500 Women Scientists who wish not to be listed.

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500 Women Scientists

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Working to make science open, inclusive, and accessible.

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