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In my opinion

Juggling academia and parenting in the fourth wave

The lack of any structural acknowledgement about the toll that COVID is taking on parents and caregivers is a grave failing at the institutional level.

BY JOHANNA LEWIS | AUG 26 2021

As September approaches, it feels like there are two parallel worlds unfolding in Ontario. Universities are still talking about getting back to “normal,” the government has eased almost all safety restrictions, and the protection afforded by vaccines appears to be giving many the peace of mind to return to restaurants, gatherings and travel. But for those of us with young kids, we are at an entirely different juncture. Our children are entering their third school year disrupted by this pandemic, dealing with profound anxiety, loss and isolation, and not yet able to be vaccinated. Many of the parents that I know – myself included – are at our worst point in the pandemic to date.

As a doctoral student and teaching assistant, I am of course concerned about workplace safety and the postsecondary learning and teaching experience. But as a parent, I am anxiously watching cases climb due to the Delta variant while hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated children are about to enter poorly ventilated and under-resourced school buildings where they will sit in overcrowded classrooms for six hours a day.

The provincial government has refused to do the things that would have prevented this current wave (or the last one, for that matter) and it has refused to implement measures that would keep our children safe for the in-person learning that kids and parents both desperately need. The demands are clear: paid sick days for all; investment in and monitoring of indoor air quality; robust plans for testing, tracing, and isolating; reduced class sizes and effective cohorting in schools; and more. We need a plan that doesn’t leave anyone behind – including racialized low-wage workers, disabled and immune-suppressed people, or children and their families. The government has prioritized corporate profits and an austerity agenda over community health and wellbeing. We are all suffering because of it.

Every parent I know is navigating their own set of impossible decisions and circumstances right now, and many are doing so with fewer options and supports than I have had access to. But I will speak to my own experience as a PhD student. When the pandemic hit, I was forced to weigh my funding deadlines and career prospects against the safety of my family. The mental health pitfalls of trying to juggle it all against the risks of illness, the traumatic transitions, the precarious cycles of quarantines and closures. My partner is chronically ill, my eldest child has a number of mental health and learning needs, and we made the difficult decision last year to keep the kids home. I taught on evenings and weekends around my partner’s work schedule, organized action around pandemic-era injustice, cared for my two children through an unprecedented year-and-a-half of isolation and tried, where and when I could, to chip away at my dissertation.

Needless to say, progress has been slow. I have been stretched beyond capacity and, of course, deeply limited in my ability to engage in research or contribute my perspectives to the conversations happening in my field. I had hoped for and relied upon a return to school and childcare this fall – a return that now feels both physically and psychologically unsafe, as well as extremely precarious due to the all but inevitable closures and the cycles of isolation that will come with every cough or close contact.

When the pandemic first hit, my university extended funding (slightly) for those about to finish their degrees. The idea that folks earlier in their PhDs would somehow not be slowed down by this ever-lengthening crisis is a glaring issue. The lack of any structural acknowledgement about the differential toll that COVID is having for parents and caregivers is arguably an even graver failing. The assumption that I should be on a business-as-usual timeline when I was working with zero childcare instead of the 40 hours a week I had been expecting is truly wild – as anyone who has cared for young children can attest.

In the spring, I was forced to decline a finishing award because the university refused to adjust its eligibility timeline to account for pandemic caregiving. As we enter yet another year of disruption, my progress is sure to be delayed even more. Due to circumstances largely beyond my control, I will likely run out of funding before finishing. My supervisors have been understanding, but the structural obstacles are many. I know I am not alone: I’ve heard of parents with tenure track jobs leaving academia during this pandemic, not to mention PhD students who were left unable to continue or complete their degrees. This will have consequences for academia (who will be pushed out?) and for our knowledge production more broadly (whose voices will be missing?).

Action is required at a governmental level, to be sure. But postsecondary institutions also have a responsibility here. Making good on commitments to equity, accessibility and inclusion requires a more substantive and supportive approach to the students and employees who are caregiving through crisis than what we have seen so far.

It’s not too late to change course. There are still ways that you can take action to push for the policies needed to protect kids and support parents. You can join the Ontario Parent Action Network’s campaign for a #SafeSeptember and a #JustRecovery. Send a message to your government representatives and check out their toolkit for more ways to take action before schools open next month. You can also help keep up the advocacy for adequate and permanent paid sick days with the Decent Work & Health Network, and join the Justice for Workers campaign to keep fighting for fair wages and safe workplaces. This will help prevent unnecessary illness and death generally, and support caregivers who have to keep sick or exposed kids at home. Finally, you can write to your union and university. Talk to your colleagues and organize. Blanket extensions for all PhD students are unlikely – but maybe we can leverage collective power to push universities to recognize the toll this pandemic has taken on grad students with caregiving responsibilities.

Johanna Lewis is a queer parent, a community organizer and doctoral candidate in the department of history at York University.

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