Jenny Root is used to receiving emails about the coronavirus from Florida State University: They come every few days, updating employees on the latest travel advice and estimates for when campus might reopen.
When the Friday afternoon email arrived, Root, who has a 7-month-old daughter, was pumping. Phone in one hand, she scrolled until an unfamiliar subhead caught her attention: “Remote Work Update.”
“In March 2020, the University communicated a temporary exception to policy which allowed employees to care for children at home while on the Temporary Remote Work agreement,” the email read. “Effective, August 7, 2020, the University will return to normal policy and will no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”
Root, an assistant professor of special education, struggled to parse the “bizarre” message she was reading. It just didn’t make sense, she said: Throughout coronavirus, her boss had been extremely supportive, encouraging Root as she juggled her usual workload with child care for her baby and 4-year-old son, all while applying for tenure. Now the school seemed to be saying that employees couldn’t juggle anymore: Do your work, or watch your children. You cannot do both.
“My initial thought was, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do with [my kids]?” said Root. While her son’s day care had opened up for a few weeks, it closed down again when one of the providers came into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. With covid-19 cases surging across Florida — cases in the state have increased fivefold in the last two weeks — Root wasn’t sure she’d want to put her kids in day care, even if she could. She hasn’t particularly enjoyed the last few months, trying to work at home with her kids, but it feels like the only option.
“None of us are enjoying this,” Root said. “It makes me feel like I’m failing at everything I do.” The university, she said, is “acting like they gave us this privilege to watch our children while we worked — when that’s literally what I had to do.”
When coronavirus hit, companies scrambled to adjust their policies around remote work and child care: With schools and day cares closed, and nonessential employees working from home, many employers realized that they could no longer demand the full attention of their employees during working hours. They would have to be flexible. But now some of that flexibility may be coming to an end. As the school gears up to reopen in the fall, Florida State announced Friday that many employees will have to develop alternative plans for child care.
“As FSU looks toward resuming normal campus operations — as conditions allow — we felt a responsibility to provide our employees notice of our intention to return to our standard telecommuting agreement that requires dependent or child-care arrangements while working remotely,” Renisha Gibbs, associate vice president for human resources at FSU, wrote in a statement provided to The Lily. “If employees do not have day care options or choose not to send their children to school in the fall, they should work with their supervisors to identify a flexible work schedule that allows them to fulfill their work duties and their family responsibilities.”
This policy change will almost certainly impact female employees at FSU more than their male colleagues, forcing some to step back at work or perhaps quit altogether. It’s a situation that has played out, again and again, throughout the pandemic: When families aren’t able to find other forms of child care — or don’t feel comfortable sending their kids outside of the home every day, exposing them to possible infection — women are more likely to make a professional sacrifice, said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist who studies gender and families at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Even in the most egalitarian-meaning households, the domestic sphere will still fall primarily on women’s shoulders,” Collins said.
Florida State followed up on Monday afternoon with a new email, offering additional information about the policy change. They specified that the policy only “applies to employees whose job duties require them to be on campus full-time during normal business hours,” and specifically excludes professors.
Some FSU employees say this makes things worse, targeting only employees who don’t have the job security of tenured professors. The university has not provided a full list of the positions exempt from the policy. Multiple tenure-track professors could not say for sure whether the new policy applies to them.
“Due, I imagine to the way this has gone viral on social media … a slight retraction was issued today, which actually only compounds the initial problem,” Cathy McClive, a history professor at FSU, wrote in an email. “The policy now applies to staff not faculty — so those without tenure are in the most precarious positions.”
FSU sent yet another email on Thursday morning, a few days after this article was published, apologizing for the “confusion and anxiety” caused by the first two emails.
“We want to be clear — our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children,” the email read. “We want everyone in our community to be focused on doing their part to keep each other safe. We are requesting that employees coordinate with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to work obligations.”
When she received the original email on June 26, one administrative employee said she read it “at least half a dozen times.” She couldn’t believe it, she said: Even with a toddler at home, she says, she has been able to fulfill her work responsibilities “100 percent” throughout the pandemic. Her job includes responding to emails from students about course sign-ups and waitlists, and uploading information to the departmental website — all things she can do from home. (The employee asked to remain anonymous to avoid potential backlash from her employer.)
“There has been no lapse in the kind of support my students need,” she said. “It’s not reasonable to say you can’t keep your kid and work at the same time. They’re reverting back to normal policies when life is not normal yet.”
According to the new policy, she is expected back at work on August 7. But the university day care, where she sends her daughter, won’t reopen until the start of term, on August 24.
“I don’t want to put my child in a facility I don’t know, and I can’t vet day cares in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. Her husband also works in a staff support role at the university, so he will have to go back to work, too.
The employee raised these concerns with her boss weeks ago, she said, as Florida was reopening, letting him know she would be unable to return to work until her day care opened. While her request was ultimately approved, she says, she suspects Friday’s email will apply to her, too. She is afraid to raise the situation with her boss again, she says. Whenever she brings up child-care issues with him, she says, he mentions that he is able to make it work with his own kids. His wife doesn’t work outside the home.
“If day care isn’t open, either me or my husband will be taking care of my child.”
Florida State has said they’ll continue to monitor the local school district closely, making decisions in line with the district’s chosen course of action for the fall. But it’s “more complicated than that,” said Miranda Waggoner, a professor of sociology at FSU, who does not yet have tenure. The school district is currently giving families the option of either virtual or in-person learning, she said.
“Now that cases are surging, many parents might choose a digital learning experience,” said Waggoner, who has a 6-year-old son. She hasn’t decided whether to send her son back to school: She worries about the coronavirus exposure he’ll get if he goes, and the social interaction he’ll lose out on if he doesn’t.
Even tenured professors, who won’t be personally affected by the policy, are deeply concerned about Friday’s email — and the message it sends about the university’s priorities.
“As a mother, it’s difficult to know that the university really doesn’t understand what it takes to be a mother,” said Katrinell Davis, a tenured professor in the sociology and African American studies departments.
When administrators agreed on this new policy, Davis suspects there were “no women at the table who are working a split shift between work and home.”
Those women would have called out this policy as “unrealistic,” she says — something that “works on Mars, but not on planet Earth.”
In a previous version of this story, the statement from Renisha Gibbs was incorrectly attributed to FSU spokesperson Jill Elish.