Caregivers of unvaccinated children are almost certainly facing a situation of difficult choices in the fall. As cases rise nationally, children account for 15% of all new cases, 2% of all children with COVID now require hospitalization, and 4%-13% of kids will contract long-COVID. This is a significant increase from last year, and, even with mitigation strategies in place, the increased transmissibility of the delta variant will undoubtably result in quarantines and childcare disruptions in the fall. The below graph illustrates the startling increase in hospitalization trends for children:
We are already seeing larger and more frequent quarantines in the K-12 classrooms than last year (even when mask mandates are in place), and modeling predicts that within 3 months of school re-opening, 24%-35% of unvaccinated children will contract COVID. The percentages hit 75% in districts where masks and testing are not in place.
Given these numbers and the data from our survey and others, we join UFAS Madison, AAUP Milwaukee and others in urging campuses to offer transparent guidance on how to respond to COVID-related disruptions for caregivers and others in the fall. Instructors with unvaccinated children will undoubtedly need quick answers from supervisors on how to proceed if their child is quarantined due to a COVID case or exposure, and they cannot physically be in-person to teach (it is hard to get childcare when your kid might have COVID). Non-instructional staff will also need more transparent guidelines how to respond to the same situation. Others will need to keep their children home entirely due to health concerns and will need ongoing support to balance caregiving and work demands.
Task Force Recommendations–Continued Flexibility for Fall 2021
Many employees will continue to experience disruptions related to COVID throughout the academic year. In light of these anticipated disruptions, we recommend the following course of action:
- Increased flexibility and remote teaching and work options for those who request it—this includes options for hybrid workdays to manage increased caregiving loads, virtual meetings, and the virtual office hours
- Clear communication and resources on emergency leave options for caregivers who need to care for someone who is ill and/or provide childcare due to quarantine requirements or COVID-related childcare disruptions
- A clear pathway to request a change in work modality that does not require filing an ADA request and includes an appeal process to minimize inconsistency across units and departments
- Transparent contingency plans for mitigating risks in labs, classrooms, and other settings if case levels reach more than 5% positivity rate on campus or the surrounding county.
- Clear communication and support for student caregivers who may also require remote and flexible learning options
- Review telecommuting policy requests with the purpose of retaining current employees and the long-term work environment reputations of each university in system
- We recommend that each campus clearly identify and communicate the pathways for faculty and staff to discuss, report or appeal situations they perceive as inequitable or situations when the university’s commitment to supporting caregivers specifically, or diversity, equity and inclusion more broadly, is challenged
Over the course of the pandemic, many marginalized employees (whether gender, race, dis/ability and health, or economically) have learned ways of navigating work from home, increasing productivity and increasing quality of life. The University of Wisconsin System Telecommuting Policy appreciates the positive outcome and attractive features of working from home, including retention of quality employees. In addition to applying these guidelines in the fall of 2021, the caregiving task force encourages campuses to support flexibility as a long-term equity initiative to attract and retain employees from diverse backgrounds and life experiences.
One of the main concerns in returning to 75% or more in-person for Fall 2021 is the loss of colleagues, mentors for marginalized students, peer collaborators during what has been called “The Great Resignation.” Employees are already leaving jobs where the work culture is not supportive enough, and that is even more true of knowledge workers. In order to prevent not only the loss of employees generally, we must reckon with the likelihood that the employees who leave will disproportionately be women, millennials, people with health conditions, racially or ethnically marginalized populations, who have disproportionately been negatively impacted during the pandemic. Those losses will be most severe at the bottom end of the pay scale – women workers, racially and ethnically marginalized workers, disabled workers, and millennial-aged workers – the populations the UW System is trying to attract as faculty, staff, and students. Failure to anticipate and respond to these inequalities could diminish years of work toward increasing gender and racial equity and undermine inclusive efforts for many years to come.
As Wisconsin institutions that promote and support inclusivity and diversity, the UW System should be leaders in rolling out policies that account for these sites of inequity and potential employment discrimination. We appreciate the efforts already in place to handle these issues, and to plan a fall semester and academic year with the shifting public health circumstances.
We hope these recommendations direct decisions being made relating to employees grappling with protecting themselves and their families, employees continuing to navigate caregiving responsibilities, while hoping to remain paid employees of the UW System.
We are eager to support this process as needed, and there are faculty and staff experts in gender equity on every UW System campus to help move this process along with an eye towards inclusivity, intersectionality, and proactive equity policies.