With Virtual Instruction, Faculty Juggle Teaching, Research, Diapers, and Daycare

Mathematics associate senior lecturer Dusty E. Grundmeier first noticed headlines circulating about the novel coronavirus at the start of the spring 2020 semester. He immediately became concerned that the spreading virus would drastically alter the course of the spring semester.
By Meera S. Nair and Andy Z. Wang

When the College shifted instruction online due to Covid-19, faculty found themselves trading their work offices and lecture halls for a room in their home — undisturbed from their children, if they were lucky.
When the College shifted instruction online due to Covid-19, faculty found themselves trading their work offices and lecture halls for a room in their home — undisturbed from their children, if they were lucky. By Meera S. Nair

Harvard Mathematics associate senior lecturer Dusty E. Grundmeier first noticed headlines circulating about the novel coronavirus at the start of the spring 2020 semester. He immediately became concerned that the spreading virus would drastically alter the course of the term.

“I was concerned that we weren’t going to make it through the semester,” Grundmeier said.

In December 2019, Grundmeier and his wife — University of Massachusetts professor Anne Fitzpatrick — welcomed their second child, Peter. Their five-year-old daughter, Catherine, was attending pre-kindergarten.

On March 8, 2020, Grundmeier and Fitzpatrick pulled their daughter out of school due to increasing concern surrounding Covid-19. Just two days later, on March 10, Harvard announced that all classes would transition online for the remainder of the semester.

In the days that followed, Harvard operations transitioned online. While faculty adapted in-person instruction — ranging from lab work to roundtable seminars — to Zoom, the pandemic also forced them to adapt their personal lives to accommodate an increased load of work and home responsibilities.

‘A Bidding War Among Nannies’

For Christina Ciocca Eller, a professor of Sociology and Social Studies, a weekday morning begins between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., initiated by the sound of her daughter coming through the baby monitor. Ciocca Eller’s alarm then rings at 7 a.m.

Ciocca Eller has experienced the ups and downs of a pandemic pregnancy. Her daughter — who was born in August 2020 — has only met her grandparents, aunt, and uncle in person.

“I was not visibly pregnant last March, so very few of my colleagues at Harvard knew I was pregnant and none of my students did,” Ciocca Eller said. “Though I later shared my news with my colleagues and some students — and while everyone in my departments received a birth announcement — it was just a very odd thing, psychologically speaking, that so few people witnessed my pregnancy.”

Although this was her second child, Ciocca Eller said the pandemic has brought “plenty of new learning experiences” when it comes to motherhood.

“In one word, having an infant during these strange times is bizarre,” she said. “Many of the things that were very normal with our first kiddo — who is 3.5 now — are non-starters with the baby: going to the library, having baby playdates, even just going to the grocery store.”

Babysitters, meanwhile, were a non-starter for Grundmeier, who said he and his wife Fitzpatrick did not feel comfortable inviting any outsiders to their home for the first few months of the pandemic.

“I think we were kind of burned out before we started, because, I mean, we weren't sleeping very much,” Grundmeier said. “It's just always hard when you have a baby at home — but then, of course, the pandemic made it much worse because you don't have any childcare.”

In July, they started to feel “a little bit more comfortable having people over” and began the search to hire a full-time babysitter. In Fitzpatrick's words, the process of “finding backup care was like the Wild West.”

“There was like a bidding war among nannies in Boston, because it was becoming clear for schools that the fall wasn't going to have in-person instruction,” Grundmeier said. “So everybody we tried to hire would immediately get better offers.”

“Luckily, we did eventually hire a full-time babysitter for the fall semester,” Grundmeier added. “So we have a nanny coming in, and that's helped a lot.”

Gojko J. Barjamovic — a senior lecturer and the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations — said while his toddler’s daycare has opened again, the pandemic’s erratic circumstances could impose a childcare burden on him and his wife at any time.

“Once in a while you get a positive, and then the whole place closes down for 10 days or two weeks or three weeks,” Barjamovic said. “And then you're back to square one with a baby in the house, having to manage all sorts of ordinary responsibilities as a university teacher and researcher while you have that kid at home.”

Just nine days before Barjamovic’s interview with The Crimson, his son’s daycare closed for ten days due to a positive case, leaving “the baby under the roof.”

‘A Roundtrip to Nowhere’

Harvard Kennedy School professor Jason Furman ’92 — whose three children are 5, 12, and 13 — said he was “exhausted” by the time the first semester of online teaching ended last spring.

“If the summer hadn't come when it did, I don't know what I would have done,” Furman said.

Furman — who taught Economics 10: “Principles of Economics” for the first time last academic year alongside Economics Professor David I. Laibson ’88 — said the start of the pandemic precipitated a “perfect storm of challenges.”

Specifically, Furman said the Covid-19 crisis eroded the boundaries between his work and home life.

“It was sort of like talking on the phone with David Laibson while I had a child screaming in the background,” he said.

Furman explained that his only reprieve came for the two-and-a-half hours a week that he was “literally teaching.”

“I would effectively say to my kids, ‘You can't come in right now,’” he recounted.

Furman said while his children never made any appearances during his live Zoom lectures, his youngest child did show up on national television while he was giving an interview with CNBC.

“He came in the background, looked, got confused, sort of stared,” Furman said. “The people on TV asked me about him, and were much more interested in him than anything I had to say, I think.”

Grundmeier echoed Furman’s perspective, stating that the pandemic has “blurred the work-life transition.”

“I had one time when a student raised their hand in class and asked if it was my daughter who was singing Frozen in the background,” Grundmeier said. “Another time, my students asked, ‘Is your baby okay?,’ because he was crying a lot in the background.”

Barjamovic said his family — which includes a seventh-grade daughter and a 2-year-old son — has formulated daily rituals to “be able to function.”

“You have to create certain milestones during the day and during the week in order to even get a sense of the progression of time, which I think is psychologically really important,” he said. “In the evening, before we go to bed, we insist the three of us — our daughter and my wife and I — do something together for an hour.”

“We're usually so tired that it can be something just as lame as watching some show on Netflix or playing a game or puzzle, but just to have kind of closure on the date,” he added.

Furman said having a 5-year-old meant it was “very hard for either parent to ever get any peace.”

“Early on in March, just to give my wife a break, I would put all three kids in the car and we would just go for sort of an hour drive, like a roundtrip to nowhere,” Furman said. “There's one place we found that had these rolling hills, and we drive up and down it and call it a roller coaster. And that was our entertainment.”

‘Childcare and Work are What We Do’

Fiery A. Cushman ’03, a professor of Psychology, took a call from The Crimson while stationed at a playground in Cambridge. While conducting the interview, Cushman watched his 6-year-old play and waited for his 4-year-old's dismissal from preschool.

Though bedtime is at 7:30 p.m. for Cushman’s two children, at that point, his workday is far from over.

“I'm going to record a lecture for Psych 15 between about eight and 10 p.m. tonight,” Cushman said. “Academia is funny in that I think not many of us work nine to five in a couple of senses. One is that people tend to work long hours, and the other is we tend to work at oddball hours.”

Cushman said both of his children were sent home from their schools at the beginning of the pandemic. While waiting for the schools to reopen, Cushman and his wife elected to home-school their two kids.

“My wife and I divided up the days of the week, and we took turns homeschooling the kids. We were developing curricula for our kids, thinking about what their learning goals should be, and trying to find ways to make sure that we were still getting them outdoors,” he said. “It was honestly a lot of fun and very rewarding.”

Cushman said that while his preschooler’s daycare is running at “three-quarters” capacity now, and his elementary-schooler is back in school on a limited schedule, he has had to adapt his daily agenda to accommodate increased childcare burdens.

“It's definitely the case that now, childcare and work are what we do. There's really not room for anything but childcare and work on the schedule these days,” Cushman said.

Barjamovic said his work responsibilities now regularly bleed into the weekend.

“You try and divvy up things over seven days of the week, rather than five, so as to leave enough room within each day to be flexible,” Barjamovic said. “The downside to that is that you are never off. You don't have a weekend because you then have Ph.D. advising meetings on a Saturday.”

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay acknowledged the increased strain of the pandemic on faculty serving in caretaker roles in an interview with the Crimson last week.

“Faculty-parents — and, frankly, all parents and caregivers — have experienced a range of challenges balancing the demands of personal and academic life throughout the course of the pandemic,” Gay said.

She added that FAS Faculty Affairs has provided “multiple supports for faculty-parents, including appointment extensions, research support, office access, prioritizing faculty with children in setting course times, and enhanced childcare support.”

Cushman, who was originally up for tenure this academic year, said he was granted a one-year delay of his tenure evaluation because the administration recognized the constraints placed on faculty by the pandemic.

“For a lot of folks, they’re not just facing kids at home that they have to care for, but their ability to get research done is impacted — maybe because an anthropologist can't travel to their field site, or a neuroscientist can't operate a brain scanner in a way that's safe, or a chemist can't get into the laboratory,” Cushman said.

‘A Million Different Impacts’

Many faculty members relayed that the pandemic helped illuminate similar struggles that students and colleagues are simultaneously facing.

Barjamovic said he appreciated that it had become acceptable and even standard to “poke a little bit more” at how individuals were doing, even across faculty-student relationships.

“We of course are well aware that a lot of our students are facing a much bigger challenge than we faculty,” he said. “It’s become more okay to ask, ‘Are you all right now? How are you doing?’”

Cushman, too, said he gained insight into the “different and unpredictable ways” Covid-19 affected people around him.

“This has been a real lesson in how the same big event in the world has a million different impacts on different people in different life places right now,” he said.

At a faculty meeting last week, Gay said she was “really proud” of how Harvard’s faculty, staff, and students “met this moment” during the transition to virtual learning during the public health crisis.

“March 15th will mark the one-year anniversary of the de-densification of campus and the start of our many adaptations, personal and professional, to the pandemic,” she said. “Across every department and program, we came together — over Zoom — to tackle the problem and find a way to continue the work we came here to do.”

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

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