Pitt professors face child care difficulties during pandemic

By Colm Slevin and Suln Yun

Although “Bring Your Child to Work Day” is officially April 22, many professors and students who are parents have been bringing their kids to work just about every day since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.

With most meetings and classes online at Pitt, it can be difficult for parents to separate their work and home lives clearly. To aid in this new challenge, Pitt has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to help elementary students on a day-to-day basis with their online classes by providing an in-person “proctoring” space on CMU’s campus, available for parents at both universities.

Though the CMU proctoring system has been made available to the Pitt community, many Pitt professors still face difficulties with child care during the pandemic. With most classes remaining online, Pitt professors said they are trying their best to balance their teaching while also taking care of their kids.

The Posner Center, located on CMU’s campus, has been transformed into a space for up to 50 children of faculty, staff and students from both universities. The child care center declined to provide enrollment numbers. The program is available from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for children from first grade to sixth grade. According to a program flyer, the center takes precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID by requiring face masks, social distancing, taking temperature checks and requiring students to be symptom-free for 72 hours before returning.

Carla Freund, director of CMU’s Cyert Center for Early Education, said the proctoring center opened for CMU faculty, staff and students last October and for Pitt faculty, postdocs, staff and students on Jan. 19 — the first day of spring classes. She said this program is offered on a temporary basis through June 11.

Freund said for parents who would prefer their kids be in a child care program, the center is able to offer resources and spaces for art and gym classes, and also encourages students to read, engage in quiet activities and view other entertainment that is pre-loaded onto their devices by their parents in between classes.

She said the proctoring center is not replacing teachers, but aims to help children succeed in school by offering help and keeping elementary school-aged children occupied between classes. According to the website, the proctors are experienced in working with children.

“The proctors observe the children while they are involved in synchronous and asynchronous school activities, offering both academic and technical assistance,” Freund said. “After their school work has been completed, the children can engage in quiet activities or materials brought from home. Weather permitting, the children also can get some fresh air, while taking a group walk on campus or in the nearby Kraus Campo.”

According to Freund, the proctoring center began after Carnegie Mellon heard from its faculty that they needed help with child care and thought opening the center would help alleviate this stress.

“CMU created the proctoring center after hearing that many of our faculty, staff and graduate students needed child care during the pandemic,” Freund said. “The University explored numerous potential solutions and began offering the Proctoring Center and two other child care options in the fall.”

Despite the proctoring center being set up to help alleviate parent stress, some said they will not be enrolling their children. Ilia Murtazashvili, an associate professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the cost of sending his four elementary school children to the proctoring center was among the reasons he won’t enroll his children.

Murtazashvili said the fee of $5/hour per child was too steep for himself and most families. According to him, there was no fee waiver provided in the program. He said this, along with other reasons, may be why the CMU program hasn’t been as successful as it could be.

“What was needed is to allow a flexible plan so parents who need to be home with their kids could do so,” Murtazashvili said. “It’s not surprising that few use the CMU program, as it is expensive, was rolled out very late and proctoring services do not work that well, based on our experience.”

He also said the limited ages accepted into the program boxed out parents with younger children. Susan Peterson, a second-year Pitt English MFA student and a graduate student assistant in the Swanson School of Engineering, said the CMU day care program doesn’t work for her family due to her daughter being too young.

But even with the child care program, Murtazashvili said parents still need more help from the University in general.

“The University has not done much for parents. One thing we asked for on several occasions was to have parents with kids home to be able to teach asynchronously,” Murtazashvili said. “This would only affect a small percentage of parents, as most do not have small children in schools that have been closed for almost a year, but the University has continually left this to the departments or schools, and there is no clear policy allowing it. This means we are expected to teach [synchronously] unless we arrange otherwise.”

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said a December survey from the Office of Human Resources helped “identify the interest for additional care resources,” which led to Pitt’s participating in the proctoring center partnership with CMU. He added that the University is continuing to explore additional resources.

Photo courtesy of Ilia Murtazashvili

Murtazashvili said even though it’s difficult to have all of his kids at home, he prefers to homeschool them rather than deal with COVID-19 regulations at child care facilities.

“Pittsburgh Public Schools were supposed to open for face-to-face learning in January, but the School Board voted to remain remote until at least April 6,” Murtazashvili said. “Since remote school has been such a mess — it is exceptionally challenging to have kids in front of a screen from 8:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. every day — we decided to homeschool our kids for the remainder of the year. This means we’re both working full time and have three kids at home for school.”

Murtazashvili wasn’t the only one who had to change plans because of the pandemic. Steven LeMieux, an English professor at Pitt and a father of two young kids, said when the pandemic began his family started to plan schedules that balance both work and taking care of their kids.

“Before everything shut down in March, my wife and I were planning on having both kids in day care for the fall semester,” LeMieux said. “After it became clear that that wouldn’t really be a possibility, we arranged our schedules so that I teach on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and she works on Tuesday and Thursday. Through the week, then, we’re able to trade off child care duties.”

Courtesy of Hilary Lazar

Hillary Lazar, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Pitt and a graduate student union organizer, has a 4-year-old son. Lazar said her partner helps to co-parent and watch after her son, for which she is very thankful.

“I feel very fortunate that my partner is with me for coparenting and I wouldn’t be able to do this without him,” Lazar said. “I have been a grad student and a teacher at Pitt since [my son] was born and he’s been in day care full time since 18 months old. When his daycare closed, this is the most time we have together than that we have in years. I love it. I feel very grateful and also know that this is a very privileged position to be in.”

Like Lazar, Peterson said she sees the positives in the stressful situation, and doesn’t always see the distractions at home as nuisance. She said the interruptions make her feel more authentic with her peers and students.

“For all the online discussion of the bookshelf flex and makeup tips to look better on Zoom, I’ve actually just seen more of how regular and messy other people’s lives are,” Peterson said. “When my daughter interrupts me on Zoom, I haven’t felt awkward about it, nor have I been made to feel awkward about it.”

Murtazashvili said it’s important to be considerate and understanding of other people’s situations during this unprecedented time.

“There are a lot of people with many challenges and providing additional opportunities for everyone to do well in classes is in my mind essential,” Murtazashvili said. “It’s a burden and you have to give people every chance to succeed, and be there if they need anything as best you can.”