When Jenna Gould answers my phone call, it is with an apology. She is holding her baby as we speak, and while she believes that he won’t make too much of a fuss over the course of the next thirty minutes, she’s sorry in advance if he does. I hear a sleepy murmur behind her voice—the hushed kind that only a child nestling into his mother’s arms makes—and then he falls quiet, just as Gould predicted.
I initially chalked her prediction up to mother’s intuition, but it’s actually what the baby does nearly every time Gould, a second-year student at the School of International and Public Affairs, takes a call with him on her lap. Gould’s four-month-old son, Kai, is a regular participant in her Zoom classes, and navigating daily life with him on her hip is a feat well-practiced over the past few months.
“I think I’m going to break some misconceptions,” Gould tells me. “Remote learning has been really great for me. … I don’t love the four-hour Zoom marathons, but I have a newborn, and if I was in New York, I’d have to be paying $25 an hour for a babysitter to go to class.”
That is exactly what she did in March, when her then two-year-old son needed childcare services while she and her husband, third-year Columbia Law student Tanner Zumwalt, were in classes. Gould and her husband’s academic programs don’t offer discounted childcare or stipends, so before the pandemic the cost of daycare was an unavoidable necessity. The shift to remote learning saved the family from having to pay for two spots in childcare, after the birth of their second son.
During a typical academic year, an annual $2,000 childcare subsidy is available for each qualifying child of a fully-funded Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Children who qualify for this subsidy must be under the age of five. For the 2020-21 academic year only, the subsidy available per eligible child increased to $4,000. Doctoral, postdoctoral, and other eligible students also have access to the Back-Up Care Advantage Program, which offers up to 150 hours of emergency care only to doctoral students and teaching fellows.
But these resources do not cover a significant population of student-parents: Undergraduate and non-doctoral graduate students do not qualify for this benefit, and are left without options. During a typical year, this means student-parents are paying full-price for childcare in New York City, without any help from the University.
Combined with the steep costs of childcare and the challenges of raising young children, remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the educational experience of student-parents, restricting access to daycares and other resources available. Because each semester’s plans are constantly evolving, planning schedules has become a shot in the dark for parents choosing between staying in the city and being closer to their research and teaching, or moving home to allow more flexibility to work around the needs of their children.
Sam Maclean and his wife were expecting their first child when the pandemic struck. His mother-in-law planned to move from China to New York to help care for the baby while Maclean finished his studies in General Studies and his wife worked. When international travel shut down, Maclean had no choice but to drop one of his three spring-semester classes to tend to his newborn. Without remote learning he doubts he could have taken classes at all this semester.
Nina Horisaki-Christens, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology and mother of a two-year-old boy, taught classes through the spring and summer from the confines of a tiny Brooklyn apartment. Her son was almost always home for these class sessions, as his daycare closed down during the height of the pandemic. Her apartment, which features a lofted office, accessible by ladder, presented a problem: “I think my two-year-old climbed it three or four times during the course of my classes. … He would just jump into my class in the middle of a synchronous period.”
Being home, however, has helped some student-parents connect with resources that aren’t as accessible with in-person classes. For this reason, at the height of the pandemic, Gould and her family, who do not qualify for childcare support from Columbia, moved out of the city and signed a year-long lease in May on a house in Salt Lake City for close proximity to their extended family. When they made the cross-country move back in the spring, Gould had been expecting the birth of her second son, New York City hospitals had been flooding with COVID-19 cases, and SIPA and Columbia Law had yet to formally announce their plans for the fall semester.
Gould stresses the value of having extended family as supporters as well. She jokes that her husband’s 13 aunts and uncles are like “unlimited cheap babysitters,” affording her and her husband the opportunity to attend classes from their living room couch, newborn baby in tow.
Online classes allowed Maclean’s cousin-in-law, Sylvia Ying, to move into their apartment and help with childcare rather than paying for daycare, after her North Carolina community college transitioned to remote learning for this semester. Maclean and Ying complete their coursework in shifts while the other tends to the baby.
With his wife working remotely full time as a medical coder for a hospital, and him as a full-time student, it would be nearly impossible for the two of them to simultaneously provide full-time care for the baby without the familial support.
The only issue: Remote learning won’t be permanent. Now, as questions about Columbia’s decision over in-person instruction for the spring semester begin to circulate, Gould and many other families are preparing to make difficult decisions. For Gould and Zumwalt, if SIPA or the Law School decide to require in-person classes, it could be a massive burden on the family, having to either uproot their lives to go back to New York City despite financial challenges of leasing and childcare, or not enroll in classes for the spring semester.
“Going back to New York just isn’t an option for me as a mom of two kids,” she says. “If we were to go back, I have no childcare, and I don’t even know how to go about trying to find it.”
In March, the Childcare Affordability Initiative of the Student Affairs Committee put forth a detailed report on “The State of Student-Parents at Columbia University.” The report recommends combating what it considers the “childcare crisis” at Columbia: appointing an Office of Work-Life employee dedicated to serving the needs of student-parents, funding a childcare grant program open to all student-parents of the University, and establishing a child care center in close proximity to campus at an equal cost or subsidized rate, among others. The CAI includes a call to action in its report:
“For more than a decade, students with children have pleaded with University leaders and administrators to expand child care resources, and thus make our phenomenal educational programs accessible to student-parents. And yet, the University has consistently failed to deliver a comprehensive, or even remotely adequate solution...The message emanating from Columbia University is clear, and it is undeniable: students with children need not apply.”
In addition to the CAI, student-parents at Columbia have created support groups aimed at connecting with their community. Last semester, Gould co-founded one such network: SIPA’s Student and Family Alliance. She describes the alliance as a group of friends with a goal to meet even more student-parents within their program. Gould admits that the transition to remote learning has made establishing new connections a bit more difficult, but that hasn’t stopped the group from trying via organized Zoom calls.
When the shift back to in-person instruction does occur, whether or not Gould and other student-parents will receive the support and flexibility of childcare that they have long needed is still undetermined.
Raising a child is difficult in its own right; however, it should not exclude parents from success within their academic programs. Gould makes this point especially clear: “It’s not like parents are less able to achieve than other people, it’s just you have a lot on your plate.”
The unprecedented turn of events that have led Columbia to take up online modes of instruction is a way for the University to learn about what is and is not working now for its current student-parent population.
Extending flexibility and expanding the scope of eligibility for Columbia’s resources create the potential to open up its gates to more student-parents, making an Ivy League education more equally accessible.
“I really love my program and I love Columbia,” are some of Gould’s final words to me before she must return to caring for her newborn son, who has made the most polite audience for our call. “But I wish it was more parent-friendly.”
Enjoy leafing through our second issue!