With stay-at-home orders in place, professors experience unique challenges juggling teaching and childcare

Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 6:36pm

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Illustration by Erin Ruark

Since the University of Michigan moved classes online March 11, both students and professors have had to adjust. For professors with families, teaching classes virtually and maintaining research projects has created unique and unprecedented situations when combined with childcare.

Meghan Duffy, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who has three children under the age of 10, explained that the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home orders will affect all individuals and families uniquely. She said having children at home is one factor that impacts the experience immensely. 

“One thing that will be a huge factor in terms of how people experience this is whether they had kids at home, and there’s certainly a lot of variation within that,” Duffy said. 

Duffy elaborated on the variety in the work and home lives of professionals with families, which are now overlapping. She said in her current working and living situation distinct work hours are hard to come by. 

“There are people who are home with kids who are functioning more or less as they normally would in terms of their ability to get work done,” Duffy said. “There are some people who are getting nothing done and there’s a lot of variation. I do think having young kids at home, it just really limits the number of work hours I have in a day.”

Allison Riccardi, professor of Spanish, is teaching her classes from home with three young children also at home all day since daycare services and primary schools have closed as of March 12. She said the initial transition period to online classes was strenuous, noting how taking care of her family while maintaining a full curriculum online can add stress.

“It was challenging getting everything set up in just the two days that we had, and then having the kids at home is just an extra challenge,” Riccardi said. “It’s hard for them to understand that now I’m working and I can’t take care of you right now.”

Riccardi said this unique situation has both pros and cons. 

“Just like anything, there are benefits and drawbacks,” Riccardi said. “So the benefit is, of course, more family time. The drawback would be sometimes when I’m in class they’ll just barge in and that’s a big interruption.”

For some people, social distancing and working from home with a family has revealed the importance of downtime. Duffy highlighted her own experience with this, saying she finds herself with reduced working hours. 

“We’ve now worked out a system where if I’m ultra-focused during all of the child-free hours I have in a day, it’s five hours, so I have to be ultra-focused in that but also there’s no other down time,” Duffy said. “I didn’t realize how much biking to campus was really useful for getting the little time mentally to be thinking of nothing.”

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, professor of history, is also experiencing the stay at home orders as part of a family with two young children. Hoffnung-Garskof said he’s had to decrease his work hours due to the unique and uncertain circumstances.

“My wife is also a professor and the four of us are all doing either distanced teaching, distanced research(ing) or distanced learning most of the day and we have the technology we need for that — all that said it’s still very frustrating and can be exhausting,” Hoffnung-Garskof said. “We have to expect that our workdays are going to be much shorter than they normally are, we have to be interrupting them to be regularly checking in with the kids to make sure that they’re not losing focus or steam on their work.”

Hoffnung-Garskof said a key part of his days at home involves planning a specific time for his children where they can play and don’t have to be focused on schoolwork and classes. 

“We also need to make sure that we are planning in some of the things that they get from school and from their friends that have nothing to do with instruction,” Hoffnung-Garskof said. “When we started saying, ‘Work until 11:30 and then one of us is coming down and we’re going to do recess with you,’ that was a huge relief to them and also really very fun. And once we stopped worrying about the work we weren’t getting done, it was fun for us too.”

Hoffnung-Garskof also explained that while work hours may be affected, he appreciates that the circumstances put him at home with family. 

“The really good thing for me is that I’m trapped in my house, but I’m trapped in my house with three other people who I really enjoy being with,” Hoffnung-Garskof said. “It’s hard for me to imagine looking back on this period of our lives and thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d spent less time with my children.’”

With all K-12 schools closed in Michigan, many parents are faced with the challenge of teaching their children to prevent them from falling behind. Riccardi said this individualized tutoring, in addition to maintaining her University Spanish curriculum, is a difficult task. 

“For me to tutor three different kids at three different levels in all of their different classes and to complete all of the activities would literally be impossible, so we just pick and choose,” Riccardi said. “A lot of times I would have time in between class to grade and prep and meet with students, and a lot of that time now I’m trying to tutor my kids, so when I’m preparing for class it’s after 9 p.m.”

LSA junior Meghan Ligon is a member of a student organization called Kids are Scientists Too, which creates after-school enrichment programs for local elementary schools and has been halted due to the statewide shutdown. She shared her own experiences and difficulties with teaching primary school children through various activities and worksheets.

“I do think from experience it really is pretty hard to keep their attention spans … especially at home I’d imagine it’s really hard for kids to keep their attention because they’re no longer in a classroom setting,” Ligon said. “I think one of the biggest challenges is if one kid in a group of kids loses their attention, they can influence other people, and then all of a sudden you have nobody paying attention.”

Duffy was part of a group of professors at the University dedicated to facilitating the transition to online classes. She said everyone was cognizant of the fact that work hours would be greatly affected by disparities in home life and the group members did their best to provide solutions to ease the transition.

“I was at first thinking a lot about teaching and how you could take a big class like Bio 171 and move it online,” Duffy said. “We were very aware that different people had different home life realities, and that for a lot of people, for a whole variety of reasons, they were going to have a limited number of work hours.”

While the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak is felt differently by everyone, Duffy explained that working from home with an entire family has brought about a heightened awareness of her own time use and an appreciation for the wide range of challenges everyone is going through. 

“One of the things I didn’t really appreciate at first was that I wouldn’t be able to just flip a switch and immediately be like, ‘Now I’m in work mode,’” Duffy said. “Students and faculty are going through this while also juggling all the things that come along with just being a person, which then includes worrying about themselves and their family and their parents, their kids and their brothers and sisters.”

Daily Staff Reporter Hannah Mackay can be reached at mackayh@umich.edu.