While the majority of Wellesley students, faculty and staff have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 this semester, parents and childcare providers in the campus community are focused on a big unvaccinated population in their lives: children under the age of 12.
The coronavirus vaccine has yet to be authorized for young children, and parental burdens are increasing due to a worsening childcare shortage that existed well before the pandemic. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has mandated in-person learning for all public school districts within the Commonwealth, and as Wellesley College’s campus transitions to a fully in-person year of classes, students, faculty and staff in a childcare provider role in the community have worked to juggle their occupational obligations while worrying about child supervision and pandemic safety.
At the end of the last academic year, the College administration released a memorandum entitled “September 2021 to December 2021 Flexwork Framework,” instructing administrative staff to work no more than two days a week remotely. In Fall 2020, administrative staff member Wendy* began making childcare arrangements for the upcoming birth of her daughter. However, once Wendy had given birth in the spring, her childcare provider arrangement fell through and she began to worry about who would care for her child after her maternity leave.
Wendy and her husband both work, and without external childcare help from family or an available childcare provider willing to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines that Wendy felt comfortable with, working from home just two days a week was not feasible. Wendy and her boss now have a temporary agreement for her to stay at home five days a week to work remotely until she can find long-term childcare for her daughter.
Wendy is concerned that she or her boss may face repercussions from the College’s Human Resources department. “I feel like they’ve really emphasized this part of the policy. They’ve made it really clear that they do not want things to be made more flexible,” she said.
“I don’t want anyone coming down on [my boss]. She knows I have no choice right now and I’m exceedingly nervous about that coming back to bite either her or myself because she’s doing me a huge favor right now.”
Due to childcare staffing shortages across the country, Wendy has struggled to find a long-term arrangement for her daughter at daycare centers or at-home childcare provider services.
“Daycares are understaffed. Babysitters and nannies are impossible to get,” said Wendy. “I’ve called every daycare center in the entire town. I think I was laughed at more than once for asking if there were any upcoming open slots.”
Wendy wishes the College administration would provide “understanding, more flexibility and [realize] that there are sometimes literally no other options out there than for people to be home with their children and work at the same time.”
Some other parents on campus have managed to settle childcare arrangements at two on-site locations: the Child Study Center (CSC) and the Wellesley Community Children’s Center (WCCC). The CSC, affiliated with the College’s psychology department, serves as a laboratory preschool for researchers interested in early childhood development. Several feet away sits the WCCC, an independent entity that provides childcare for infants up through pre-kindergarten.
Both childcare centers must function under COVID-19 safety guidelines set by the College’s Health and Safety Office as well as the Massachusetts Department of Early Childhood Education and Care. Since reopening, the CSC has had zero positive coronavirus cases among children with no spread according to CSC faculty director Maureen Morgan. According to WCCC early childhood program director Darlene Howland, the program has had “a handful of positive [COVID-19] cases” in its community of families and faculty, but zero in-school transmissions.
In a typical year, Professor Jennie Pyers in the psychology department takes students from 100-level and 200-level courses to visit the Child Study Center for live observation; she also sends her child to school at the WCCC. Last school year, the center was closed to visitors, which prevented students from partaking in the same observations. According to Pyers, the CSC provided video recordings of children playing to document child development habits for students to study.
Before the start of the pandemic, Pyers’ research in children’s language and gesture usage previously involved in-person studies at the CSC. Since the shift to remote work, her research team has run their study through online video calls with children, which are now facilitated by the CSC.
Pyers feels deep appreciation for the CSC program staffs’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances under the pandemic.
“The fact that the [CSC] was able to support my research program, and my teaching in these circumstances when they were basically scrambling to meet all the requirements to stay open, make sure their kids were supported and getting the right kind of education, and [that] their staff was supported through their needs, I think, is something that I’ll be forever grateful for,” she said.
Pyers also praised the WCCC, where her 3 year old daughter attends a classroom. According to the WCCC’s “COVID-19 Memorandum of Understanding” required for each family to sign, the program asks children over the age of two to wear masks, requires children who have traveled outside New England, New York and New Jersey to provide a negative COVID-19 PCR test, and no longer allows parents to drop off children inside classrooms, which was once a common practice.
“I appreciate their efforts to reduce the number of people inside that building,” Pyers said.
For Professor Chipo Dendere in the Africana Studies department, who has also placed her 15-month old daughter at WCCC, the “excellent ratio of student to teacher” and daily health form requirement also makes her feel more comfortable about placing her child under the care of the WCCC.
However, Dendere also feels that worrying about childcare has placed more pressure on the already-exhausting semester during the pandemic.
“A lot of faculty and staff are having to put together this mishmash of childcare because of COVID. That gets very expensive,” Dendere said. “I also want to recognize just how lucky and privileged we [are] to be able to afford this at a time when so many people can’t.”
Dendere also pointed out the additional strain parents specifically feel in addition to the concerns of the pandemic.
“We are going to see a lot of mental exhaustion, because the mental gymnastics that you have to do every day worrying about safety and worrying about outbreaks is really annoying,” she said.
For Wendy, the flexibility provided by the agreement with her boss gives her the ability to ensure her child is safe while finishing her work.
“I still do my job, I just get it done at different hours, that’s all,” she said. “I love Wellesley, and I love my job, but when push comes to shove, my child comes first. She has to, because I don’t have a choice.”