Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Childcare in the time of COVID: how U of M is failing its students and employees

Princess Carolyn attempts to maintain a healthy work/life balance

To be a new parent is to endlessly multitask. There’s an episode of Bojack Horseman that focuses on Princess Carolyn, a character who has just adopted a baby. After her nanny quits, Princess Carolyn becomes emotionally (and visually), legion: there’s a central, exhausted Princess Carolyn, doing career/plot things, but in the background you see many versions of Princess Carolyn moving from baby-care task to baby-care task. Some tasks endlessly repeat, and each action leaves a blurry after-image. It’s an artful representation of an unavoidable truth: if you have a kid in the current social and political milieu, you can’t have a career without child care.

Having an 11-month-old during a pandemic makes me luckier than some. My kid can’t talk or walk. He can be entertained with a jar lid. I don’t have to have a second career (novice grade school teacher) on top of my first on top of housework on top of regular child care. I’m also affluent enough to have savings, housing, and plenty to eat. That said, I did not see the pandemic coming when I decided to get a Master’s degree at the University of Michigan.

They gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse: free tuition if I attended as a fulltime student. My spouse and I decided, pre-pandemic, that I should quit my job and have our family live on one salary despite the enormous cost of child care. We discovered I’d qualify for a U of M child care subsidy that would greatly ease the financial burden. The subsidy was the difference between scraping by and living comfortably.

Three months before I received the subsidy, COVID hit. For two months we paid full price at a childcare center closed for everyone but children of first responders. It was also a very large child center (more than 40 children). As a member of a high-risk group, my family and I decided to join a nanny share. By engaging a nanny for three days a week with another family we limit our exposure substantially.

Unfortunately, in Michigan, the subsidy does not apply in practice to nannies or in-home care. Despite its assurances that it cares about the health and well-being of its students, the U of M childcare subsidy is applicable only to licensed child care. This sounds fine on paper, but if you’re in the state of Michigan, a childcare license is only required for “Family and Group Childcare Homes” (where the childcare provider cares for one to twelve unrelated children in their own home) and “Child Care Centers” (where the childcare provider cares for one or more unrelated children in a facility other than a private residence). For a nanny providing care in the child’s home, no license is required.

As a result, the U of M subsidy only applies when you send your child to a place outside the home, where they will have contact with children and childcare workers from different households. If you wish to limit your exposure by engaging in-home care from a single nanny, the subsidy is unavailable.  I was told that licensed in-home care could be covered by the subsidy, but, after conducting some research, I was unable to find any agencies providing licensed in-home care. It’s unclear whether a license is available for an in-home childcare worker.

From a public health perspective, U of M’s position is untenable. From a personal perspective, if the choice is to send our kid to a center, where he is much more likely to contract and spread COVID, or keep him home, we'll eat the cost of a nanny share. My family and I are fortunate to have savings (though they won’t last forever), but I know other families in similar situations are struggling. This gap in the childcare subsidy disproportionately affects women, who are more likely to shoulder the bulk of child care in the home, and low-income students, who are more likely to feel the impact of unsubsidized childcare costs. I know of at least two women who’ve been forced to either leave their programs or take a leave of absence. When you’re making nothing (or the modest salary of a PhD) and working full time, what are your options? Either you pay someone a full mortgage a month for in-home care or take the University’s subsidy and risk your health, the health of your child, and the health of other people. These are nonsense terms.

The GEO (Graduate Employees Organization) has recently pressured the University to reconsider its stance on this policy, and several other issues, by striking. The University has countered with talk of the emergency funds available to students. Were I to get the maximum amount of funds from each source available (CARES and the Rackham graduate school) it would not amount to my original subsidy award. It is also uncertain whether I will be awarded any funds, as the applications are rolling. If the University is serious about diversity, inclusion, and slowing the spread of COVID, it should allow and encourage its families to choose in-home childcare. It should dig into its $12 billion endowment and help those disproportionately bearing the economic brunt of the COVID pandemic.

No comments:

Post a Comment