Empty swing set broken arrow park

Students, GTAs and faculty members are struggling to balance childcare while working during the coronavirus pandemic. Some faculty members have received aid from KU's pandemic child assistance fund, but some did not qualify, heightening stress about the implications of the pandemic.

Giang Nguyen-Dien has been working as a graduate teaching assistant during the fall semester at the University of Kansas, teaching two introductory American studies classes to a combined 45 students.

In addition to teaching 45 students, Nguyen-Dien is a mother to two young girls, a first-grader in Lawrence Public Schools and a four-year-old. 

This semester, it’s been difficult to find the time for work and studying while taking care of two kids, she said.

During the day, it’s virtually impossible for Nguyen-Dien to find quiet time to work on school work, she said. Instead, she’s forced to try to stay caught up by working before her kids wake up or after they go to bed.

“For the first few weeks [of the semester], I woke up at 4 a.m. and started recording lectures and doing powerpoints, and worked until 7 o’clock when they wake up,” Nguyen-Dien said. “Then I would work from around 8:30-9 p.m. to 1-2 a.m.”

Nguyen-Dien said it’s hard to keep up when she’s working on a schedule that allows for little sleep.

“I feel guilty because I don’t do enough on my work, on my reading and writing, but I feel like there’s not enough time,” she said.

Allison Kirkpatrick, an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy, finds herself in a similar situation while trying to teach, research and supervise her twin six-year-old girls as they navigate online school.

“I work in the evenings and then I work full days both Saturday and Sunday to do my job because my kids require a lot of attention during the day,” Kirkpatrick said. “I feel like I’m teaching [my kids] too.”

Bulaong Ramiz-Hall, the director of the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity, said she’s worked with many students this semester facing similar hardships. As director, Ramiz-Hall oversees the KU women 4 KU women fund, which seeks to “assist students to fulfill their educational and career goals,” according to the Emily Taylor Center’s website.

“We have seen an immense increase in applications for [the KU women 4 KU women fund],” Ramiz-Hall said. “A little over half of the applications are parents who speak about their need for funding to find childcare.”

In September, KU announced the pandemic child assistance fund, which aimed “to provide financial support for unanticipated expenses due to the recent changes to K-12 education instructional methods,” according to the Protect KU website. It was estimated at the time each family would receive between $100 and $500, according to the website.

“I am not sure how far a few hundred dollars goes in regards to childcare costs,” President of the KU Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition Neill Kennedy said.

Ramiz-Hall learned she wasn’t eligible for the fund, despite having a two-year-old at home because the fund only supported staff and faculty with school-aged children.

“I was excited about funding, but I’m not eligible because it’s only for people with grade-level kids, which is unfortunate,” she said.

Despite initially advertising applicants would receive between $100 and $500, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson told the Kansan each family that applied received an average of about $1,200. Barcomb-Peterson didn’t provide a specific reason for the discrepancy between the initial estimate and final disbursement.

Nguyen-Dien said she did apply and was among the qualified applicants who submitted a detailed list of childcare expenses for reimbursement by the fund.

“It helps a little especially with a little help like affording a little nanny care for a few hours a week where I can go somewhere,” Nguyen-Dien said. 

Kirkpatrick is on the tenure track in her department, she said. She worries that the pandemic and childcare responsibilities will hurt women disproportionately. KU is currently giving tenure track faculty an extra year to complete the requirements, she said.

“Women are the people right now being the most impacted and having to stay home with the kids,” Kirkpatrick said. “Who’s going to need to take that extension? Women are, so that’s going to hinder women’s progress through the ranks.”

Both Ramiz-Hall and Kirkpatrick said they wished KU was more flexible with those working while taking care of children.

“I think the university should forgive the fact that I’m not being super productive right now with research in the same way that I’m having to be flexible with my students,” Kirkpatrick said.

Currently, about 37% of all tenure or tenure-track faculty at KU are women, according to data from Analytics and Institutional Research at KU

“I personally feel [the tenure extension] is going to contribute more to gender inequity,” Kirkpatrick said.

Both Ramiz-Hall and Kirkpatrick's fear that the pandemic and childcare could cause the number of women on track for tenure to fall.

“There are a lot of women who are having to choose between being primary caretakers and continuing to work because of the stress and the time commitment of having to parent,” Ramiz-Hall said. “You might see, as furloughs and layoffs start to happen, people who have had to split their time and haven’t been as productive at risk.”

Nguyen-Dien said she didn’t feel like university leaders took her situation into consideration when figuring out how KU would reopen this fall.

“I don’t think that KU has actually considered graduate teaching assistants with kids,” Nguyen-Dien said. “If this keeps going on, I don’t see how this works out for me.”