Many university students have child care responsibilities that they have had to balance with their academic work. With ongoing uncertainty around in-person teaching at both universities and schools, these students have had to find ways to balance the needs of their children with the expectations of their programs.

Artwork © 2020 Norin Taj.

The fundamental reorganization of the education system, due to the pandemic, has highlighted some key debates on caregiving in society. The functioning of school boards and universities, as they continue to experiment with online and in-person modes, magnifies systemic inequities of access, achievement, and experience for people with caregiving responsibilities.

Occasionally, in our doctoral research-team meetings, the discussion deviates from writing manuscripts to finding new strategies to manage our academic work while we homeschool our children. These conversations are a little breather that we, as caregivers, needed in our confined spaces and time during the lockdown. What follows are excerpts from discussions between two mothers pursuing full-time PhDs at the University of Toronto during a global health pandemic:

S: How did you feel about Ontario’s plan for reopening schools in the fall?

I: They made me worried about the mental well-being of my son. In the first few weeks of online classes during the summer, he lost interest and stopped paying attention to his studies. Initially, I told him to be patient as his teachers transitioned to new ways of instruction. But, I continue to be nervous about his marks…he is in grade 10 and his studies are the primary reason for conflict at home. How about you?

S: With one of my children in kindergarten and the other entering middle school, the fall reopening plans didn’t seem viable to me. Sending the kids to school clearly wasn’t safe, but the online model forced me to continue working from home. Imagine two kids in a tiny apartment for days and months. All summer, I was creatively planning their activities to keep them engaged and avoid any noise complaints from the neighbours. And, of course, I’ve been staying up late every night to complete my academic work.

I: How did you feel about the reopening plans for winter?

S: My son was in virtual school through the fall, and I still don’t feel comfortable sending him to in-person classes anytime soon, as some COVID cases were reported in his school recently. For my five-year-old, the first three weeks of January is virtual and this is also the time where I’m supposed to start my term, begin a research assistantship, and submit abstracts to academic conferences. A few laptops and limited Wi-Fi bandwidth at home, and the exhaustion from helping my children learn make me think it will be a rough start. And, of course, I have to wait until late night or early mornings to keep up with my academic work. Plus, the online discussions are too formal and somehow lack the warmth of personal connection. What has your experience been like?

I: Bizarre, I must say…classes, papers and deadlines, mine and my son’s! I keep switching between my Zoom meetings and preparing breakfasts and snacks for us. And yet, I feel that, as a single mother, I am not doing enough for him and, as a student, I am falling far behind others. I fear saying this out loud…what would my professors think about me? How would my department react? In addition to everything else, I find myself needing to uphold the image of a strong working mother.

S: I agree. The sense of belonging in university spaces was already weak for us and the pandemic has made that worse.

The anxieties discussed in the conversation above highlight the social expectation for care work, and the lack of support available from social institutions. As the province, burdened by pre-COVID budget cuts to education, seems unprepared to operate schools safely or effectively, parents worry about their children’s learning needs and health and safety, especially considering there have been over 1,400 cases in Toronto District School Board (TDSB) itself. The concerns for the health and safety of teachers and staff are equally imperative.

The province, burdened by pre-COVID budget cuts to education, seems unprepared to operate schools safely or effectively.

These anxieties, combined with acute feelings of guilt, isolation, insomnia, and imposter syndrome, pose risks to the mental wellness of student parents. Of course, this is not new, but the pandemic has intensified these feelings, which are shared by many parents. A 2018 study conducted at the University of Toronto revealed that student parents commonly reported a marked difficulty in finding a sense of belonging at their university, which impacted their ability to form meaningful interpersonal connections and cope with school and life challenges. The report also exposed that students felt discomfort even disclosing that they had children!

The invisibility of care work has led to the othering of student parents on campuses. For racialized and immigrant student parents in particular, the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding conditions, including a lack of stable employment, financial insecurity, and small or non-existent family support networks. Burdened with multiple responsibilities and more mouths to feed, student parents often cannot make do with the precarious and minimum wage work offered on campus. This has meant finding off-campus jobs, which are often equally precarious and are sometimes the most exposed frontline positions. During the pandemic, many student parents and their partners have had to choose between unemployment or jobs that put the health and safety of their families at risk.

Single parents, new parents, and parents caring for children with disabilities are in unique positions that aggravate the crisis for them, as they lack adequate support from an underfunded public child-care system and may have lost access to important community networks or the type of employment and learning options only available on campus. Several studies point out that a bulk of the care work inside and outside academia is performed by women. Not only does this mean excessive pressure on women to balance school and home but it also, in effect, pushes them out of the labour market, either due to a lack of employment opportunities on campus or a lack of access and feasibility for mothers to engage in that work.

So far, the University of Toronto’s response to the pandemic has been disappointing. Both mothers expressed their apprehensions and concerns.

I: During the summer, the university’s reopening plans troubled me. They had proposed in-person classes and teaching assistantships, which created a lot of fear of endangering my family and others. The university’s transition online was hasty and the courses continue to be designed as if for in-person classes, with limited opportunities to connect in meaningful ways. I feel the university has been slow in understanding and responding to the needs of student parents, as policies are not designed with us in mind.

S: I see online yoga and mindfulness sessions being offered, but those activities don’t address the challenges I’m facing or the anxiety I’m feeling. Real change is only possible by reaching out and working with students in need. The university has a long way to go.

S: Absolutely! Even the university’s long emails packed with resources were burdensome. Navigating the resources alone takes time. It took me three separate sittings to collect the relevant documents for a bursary application. With employment uncertainty and unexpected financial pressures driven by the pandemic, each dollar counts right now. I may need to pay for private daycare if TDSB continues to switch between online and in-person modes. The city daycare scenario seems so grim. The ones near me are functioning with half the capacity and getting subsidies and spots is extremely difficult.

I: Thankfully, my kids enjoy calls with their grandparents every day, but that has been my only child care and community so far. But yes, being a student parent certainly means having limited access to resources. I am often unable to take up the work on campus as it takes a lot more hours of labour than the work-hours mentioned.

S: Right! And, considering my mothering work, those opportunities at the university are highly competitive and inaccessible for me.

Real change is only possible by reaching out and working with students in need.

The University of Toronto’s aggressive fall reopening plan was disconnected from the reality that student parents (and faculty and staff parents) faced, causing major burnout amongst students. The virtual mode alienates students from their social networks and reinforces hierarchies of race, ability, class, and gender, since the participation and success in this mode is strongly influenced by one’s social and economic position.

In response to students’ needs, the University of Toronto administration continues to offer individualized solutions. Students with families are currently juggling children, dissertations, frontline work, and, for many first-generation students, long-distance care of relatives in other parts of the world. As a result, we are unable to access supports if they require bureaucratic labour. Moreover, the online support from the university comes in the form of a flood of scheduling resources, time management workshops, and mindfulness sessions. These strategies contribute to student parents feeling that balancing school and family responsibilities are an individual’s problem and require the individual to make behavioral and scheduling changes to accommodate the university administration’s needs.

Throughout the pandemic, a lot has been said about the lack of democratic consultation processes at the University of Toronto and other postsecondary institutions. Time and again, this superficial approach to consultations has yielded inadequate results. A good first step towards democracy would be to meaningfully include student parents in the development of university policies beyond the tokenistic-feedback mechanisms that are common and widespread. Additionally, as universities continue their plans to revitalize campus spaces, there is a chance to create caregiving areas that student parents can access at no additional cost. Some examples include play areas in green spaces, visible kids’ corners inside buildings and cafés, breastfeeding areas, day/evening care options, and inexpensive sports facilities for children.

A good first step towards democracy would be to meaningfully include student parents in the development of university policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen increased demands for program extensions and flexibility for all students pursuing their studies. These are longstanding needs that student parents repeatedly articulated before the crisis and will continue to need after it ends. Further, any financial assistance offered by institutions, provincial, or federal governments must consider the higher unmet financial needs of racialized and immigrant parents, single parents, and parents with children with disabilities.

As an institution that sees itself as a leader in Canadian higher education, this is an important moment for the University of Toronto to demonstrate that leadership by stepping up for its students. Supporting and normalizing student parents, children, and caregivers on campus, and including students in financial and administrative decision-making, is an urgent policy intervention that all universities must consider. It is time that we work together to shift institutions away from practices that have isolated their students as individuals but towards behaviours that foster community and care.

Norin Taj is a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and is a mother of two.
Asmita Bhutani is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and is a mother of two.
This article was initially published online in July 2020. It was revised and expanded for the Spring 2021 print issue to reflect on experiences during the Fall term and reopening plans for Winter 2021.