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Students with children struggle to balance course work, caregiving amid COVID-19 closures

Student parents seek accommodations, financial support as child care centres, schools shut down
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Since U of T cancelled in-person classes for the remainder of the semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students who are parents and guardians have found themselves becoming full-time caregivers. Most on-campus facilities, including child care centres, shut down indefinitely on March 16, and will open on May 6 at the earliest in accordance with Ontario’s extended state of emergency. 

Additionally, all Ontario primary and secondary schools closed for two weeks after the week of March break, which began on March 16, and must remain closed until May 31 at the earliest. Accordingly, parents have been struggling to manage their out-of-school children while adjusting to alternative course delivery methods and finishing their semesters.

Two students with children spoke to The Varsity about their struggles in coping with these sudden changes.

Although professors are using a variety of instruction methods, attending live-streamed online classes during the day is extremely challenging for caregivers. Nicole*, who is in her last year of study at the Faculty of Arts & Science, spoke to The Varsity about these obstacles.

Due to the university shutdown, she has transitioned into a full-time caregiver for her son, who usually attends one of the daycares on campus. She is also responsible “for a lot of his cognitive development that the daycare was doing,” according to Nicole. 

While she said some professors have been accommodating, not every instructor is empathetic. “I align myself pretty carefully with professors that I know will be understanding,” said Nicole, “So I have to be strategic, but when I’m strategic, it’s great.”

This is especially true during online lectures. “I know if I was to clock in on a [women and gender studies] class and my kid was in the background, everybody would be fine with it. But in another case, I don’t know.”

“I’m sad because I think my professors are unique, because I don’t think that the culture of the institution… supports students with families in general,” she added. 

Nicole had also hoped to get a refund from her daycare, which instead offered the possibility of getting credit for the future.

A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that fees already collected for the month of March will be addressed when Early Learning Centres reopen. Parents or guardians who use them will not be billed for any April closure days.

This can be expected to extend until the end of COVID-19 related closures, as the Ontario government has banned child care centres from charging fees during the shutdown. The government also noted that parents cannot lose their child care space because they are not paying these fees. 

After reaching out to her college, Nicole is now hoping to receive emergency funding from the university.

Overall, Nicole wishes she had seen more communication from the university that was specifically addressed to students who are caregivers. “What I would have wanted is for the University to have recognized me, and people like me, who have responsibilities to care for others from the very beginning,” Nicole wrote.

Tanya*, a fourth-year student in equity studies with two school-aged children, echoed Nicole’s sentiments. She said that her experience as a student parent at U of T has been highly dependent upon individual professors. Both Tanya and Nicole specifically commended the Equity Studies program’s accommodating professors, and said that they have not had the same experience in every department at the university.

In an interview with The Varsity, Tanya described being a student parent at U of T as “exceptionally difficult under the best of circumstances.” Now, along with her full-time course work, she noted, “I am also expected to homeschool my children, entertain them, feed them, maintain my home, [and] quell their fears while I have many of my own.” She also said she prefers recorded lectures to live-streamed lectures, because they allow her more flexibility.

In the COVID-19 action plan that was released on March 25, the government of Ontario announced that it will give families a one-time payment of $200 for every child under 12, and $250 for every child with special needs. Ingrid Anderson, a representative for the Ministry of Education, wrote to The Varsity that “funding provided through this program is intended to support families with the purchase of educational materials to support their children during the current school and licensed child care centre closures.”

Tanya called the one-time payments “woefully inadequate,” describing them as “band-aids being provided during a crisis that fail to acknowledge and address a myriad of issues such as lack of affordable childcare in this city under normal circumstances.”

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson acknowledged the unique circumstances of student parents. “We know the COVID-19 pandemic is creating unforeseen challenges for students for a variety of reasons, including those who are balancing the demands of their studies with parenting at a time of daycare and school closures.”

*Names have been changed for privacy.