Ky. college students, employees balance parenting and education

University of Kentucky therapists have seen the inside of many of their patients’ closets recently.

UK employees using counseling sessions through the university’s Work+Life Connections office have taken on-screen therapists to their garages, on long drives and to sit-downs in parking lots in effort to get creative to find privacy while having telehealth therapy sessions, said Erika Chambers, the employee engagement and work-life director at the university.

This past fall, online employee visits to the therapists have been up, Chambers said. And many of those reaching out are going into therapy for the first time. Among those seeking help with marked increases in anxiety and depression are parents, Chambers said. They don’t seek therapy necessarily because of problems with their kids, she said, but many bring up increased worry and guilt over the education their kids might be getting at home.

“Are (the kids) getting the learning that they need?” Chambers said parents have told therapists. “Are they getting the education that they need right now and what I can provide them or not? There’s a lot of just feeling like I don’t know what’s safe, and can they safely socialize with others.”

Both students and higher education employees who are also parents have faced the daunting challenge of teaching and learning digitally alongside their kids who may need some extra help paying attention.

“It was hard to get your work done,” said Brooke Johnson, a student at Bluegrass Community & Technical College with three kids. “It was hard to get their work done and helping them — it was just crazy.”

Early days and late nights

This past fall, Johnson’s day began at 5:30 a.m. and would often end after midnight. She could drop her youngest off at a daycare, while her elementary-aged son and daughter would take on their online classwork in a specially setup room at her mother’s house.

Johnson’s son and daughter sat facing their laptops with their desks partitioned by a collapsible room divider, working through days of Zoom classes. When her mom could watch the kids, Johnson could go to work and go to her few in-person courses.

But if her mom couldn’t be there, Johnson said she spent more time doing her kids’ work than her own. When her kids were on short breaks, Johnson would try to dig into her work, but often it had to be left for later at night.

“When I did school with them, I had to sit right there with them to make sure that they were paying attention, had their cameras on and all that type of stuff,” Johnson said.

Johnson said a deep desire to make sure her kids were doing well was a major motivating factor.

“I was just motivated because I wanted my kids to do well…,” Johnson said. “They’re already having a hard time because they can’t play. They can’t be around their friends from school. A thousand times they literally said they wanted to go back to school. It was a huge shock.”

Chambers said employees at UK have had the same sentiments.

“Math tends to come up a lot,” Chambers said. “And just the guilt of my child has advanced the learning that I know how to help them with.”

Brooke Johnson’s children Bryson Johnson, 11, left, and Kendall Johnson, 8, right, have their classes online in Brooke’s mother’s home as schools in Fayette County continue virtually due to the pandemic. August 31, 2020. Marcus Dorsey [email protected]

‘We are still struggling.’

Several studies have shown that pandemic-related economic disruptions will adversely affect women and caretakers looking to move up in the workplace. Women are generally more likely to have to shoulder more parental care, potentially leaving them less time on the job and because of that some experts say it may be causing more women to face bad performance reviews. In higher education, there’s been a proliferation of research papers from male authors, while female authorship has declined during the pandemic.

A survey of UK faculty and students conducted by the university’s faculty senate and the student government in late September and early October showed that many faculty at the university shared those concerns.

The survey, which had 64 responses from faculty, showed that many felt that handling online and in-person classes increased their workload compared to a typical semester. Many also expressed concerns for faculty with school-aged children.

“If it weren’t for my husband’s ability and willingness to quit his job to care for our children, I don’t know how I would still be working in academia right now,” said one anonymous faculty response on the survey. “The parents of my children’s friends are also reluctant to let their children play with my boys because I work at UK. My family is extremely fortunate and privileged, and we are still struggling. I hope the faculty senate will take this seriously and work to address the struggles facing women and caregivers at UK right now.”

When the pandemic initially shuttered schools in the spring, UK started the Y Academy in partnership with the YMCA in an effort to provide some emergency childcare to frontline workers. In the spring, Chambers said the program had over 20 students enrolled.

The academy, located in the old university senior center on the edge of the Kroger Field parking lots at the intersection of Nicholasville Road and Alumni Drive, has since been opened to all university employees. The academy provides socially distant childcare to now over 50 students, Chambers said. Most of the employees who use it are healthcare workers as they can drop off their kids, park their car and head into the nearby UK hospital.

A child at the University of Kentucky’s Y Academy waves during a video call in December. Shaun Ring Photo provided by UK HealthCare

Shelley Cooper, a clinical research coordinator at the UK Markey Cancer Center, has been taking her kindergarten-aged daughter to the Y Academy, which she called “a lifesaver.”

“I was just worried to death about what I was going to do with her and didn’t want to bring outside people into the home to stay with her given all the COVID stuff,” Cooper said.

Without help from her mom and her prayers asking for “some doggone strength,” Johnson said this past semester of school would have been near impossible.

At UK, Chambers said the university has other offerings to help employees through this time. For parents, the Office of Work-Life also hosts a weekly meeting group with employees who are also parents and need a space to talk. Big Blue Family Care, a program which connects students with employees who might need at-home childcare, can also provide in-person support to employees who need it.

Employees can also seek counseling with the Work+Life Connections office. Reaching out for help, Chambers said, is a sign of strength.

“I absolutely encourage people to reach out for help,” Chambers said. “You know, we talk about social distancing. But that doesn’t have to mean social isolation. And we always talk about it is a sign of strength to reach out for help. And it’s OK, if you don’t even know how to describe what you’re feeling.”

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