Some California State University faculty members are asking for relief from the pressure of teaching online, helping students and their colleagues, while also taking care of their families amid the pandemic.

These faculty, who are mostly women, say the CSU system should provide teaching assistants or paid leave to ease their load, which includes educating their children who are learning from home or caring for elderly family members.

“Faculty are trying to be good professors, lecturers, counselors, librarians and coaches, striving to meet the needs of their students and serving their universities via necessary committees and workgroups,” said two CSU professors in an open letter to Chancellor Joseph Castro.

“Right now, during COVID-19, stay-at-home orders, social distancing and virtual everything, this can be at odds with supporting our families. We’re forced to make gut-wrenching choices every day — who do we let down? A student, co-workers, or a son or daughter,” they said.

The letter was sent by the professors representing the California Faculty Association, the union which represents faculty in the 23-campus system. Negotiations continue between the union and CSU.

The CFA proposal 

Those professors, Akhila Ananth, who teaches at Cal State L.A., and Michelle Soto-Peña, a Stanislaus State instructor, encouraged the chancellor to consider CFA’s proposal of providing one course off, or up to eight hours per week, for faculty, coaches, counselors and librarians.

Last year, 590 CSU faculty members took COVID-19 paid leave amounting to 105,014 total hours at a cost of about $4.3 million, according to the system. The added cost comes from having to cover their courses with other faculty.

While any additional COVID-19 relief would apply to all faculty, including part-time and adjunct instructors, the union members say they are especially worried for women professors, who risk being derailed off their tenure track as they juggle family caretaking. Without resources, the CSU could be widening gender inequity as these instructors choose between home and work, the union warned. The CSU employs about 28,000 faculty members.

However, that proposal was denied by CSU because of its “negative impact” on students who would be disrupted since the spring term had already started when the request came in, said Evelyn Nazario, vice chancellor of human resources for the system.

She said CSU made a “generous offer” of more leave time. That was rejected by the faculty union as not enough and requiring a discretionary sign off by an administrator.

“The CSU understands the challenges that faculty and staff face during the pandemic, as they manage child and eldercare needs while also carrying out their professional duties in support of the university’s mission in ensuring our students’ academic success,” Nazario said in a statement.

The Cal State Student Association declined to take a position on the issue. A student representative said there’s not been much discussion about it among students.

The CSU proposal

The CSU offered COVID-19 paid leave last year, which provided up to 32 days or 256 hours of leave starting from March 23. But that program expired on Dec. 31. Faculty could also take advantage of federal paid leave in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Congress required of public employees last year. However, that option also expired Dec. 31.

The CSU did face some budget constraints last year during the height of the pandemic; however, the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently agreed to restore the $299 million in cuts made last summer to the system. Officials are worried about future enrollment, however. Despite a record enrollment this past fall, applications for fall 2021 are down about 5%.

The UC system’s COVID-19-related paid leave

The University of California system also offered COVID-19-related paid leave to employees last year. But in November, the UC system extended its program through June 30. UC offers up to 128 hours of COVID-19 related paid leave.

“Given the unprecedented nature of the epidemic, President Michael Drake is considering providing additional leave,” said Stett Holbrook, a spokesman in UC’s Office of the President.

However, the current COVID-19-related leave available to UC employees does not include “coronavirus-related stress,” Holbrook said. But if COVID-19-related stress rises to the level of a medical condition requiring leave, then paid leave is available. The UC also has a counseling center for staff and faculty with telehealth sessions, he said.

UC employees can use the leave if they are unable to work because of a COVID-19-related school or day care closure that affects their children, for example.

Juggling home and work responsibilities

“We understand and empathize with the impact and disruptions that COVID-19 has had on our employees and the resulting anxiety and stress of the past year,” he said.

Much of the responsibility for scheduling and arranging any leave time for faculty would fall to deans and department chairs to find instructors willing and able to fill in.

Rearranging schedules for faculty can be burdensome, but it happens anyway when people are on sick or maternity leave, said Nancy Hall, a linguistics department chair at CSU Long Beach.

“We’ve certainly dealt with these things in the past, and it’s not ideal,” she said. “But it can be better than someone teaching who doesn’t have the time to teach.”

Although Hall’s department of about 30 faculty is smaller than, for example, English or psychology, she said in any given semester fewer than five people take some type of leave. Last semester, three people took COVID-19-related leave, including herself. So, finding instructors to cover for those faculty on leave was “quite manageable.”

And in this “academic job market,” there are people willing to teach, she said.

“I have three children suddenly being home schooled, and I really couldn’t handle it,” she said. “So, I took off one course and that was a lifesaver. I could do a much better job … it benefits the whole department, not just the people who take leave.”

But for some faculty, giving up their research to juggle home and work responsibilities could mean damaging their progress to tenure and moving up the career ladder. Union faculty said they were especially worried about the impact on women of color.

A January 2021 jobs report found about 275,000 women left the workforce last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 71,000 men.

“There’s a lot of published research showing women academics are not publishing as much and not getting grants … it’s very well-known that women and mothers in particular are leaving the workforce because of the pandemic,” said Shirley Yap, a math professor at Cal State East Bay.

‘We have to think of the long-term impact’

Sabrina Alimahomed, a CSU Long Beach professor and mother of two, said her research work, which is required for her to move through the tenure track, has been put on hold.

“We have to think of the long-term impact,” she said. “Are women going to go up for tenure? Are they going to get promoted?”

Hall said granting paid leave isn’t the only relief that CSU could offer that would be helpful.

“There are other types of relief besides people taking off courses,” she said. “Very few courses have a teaching assistant, there are none in my department. If we’re giving TA support where they could take over grading and the faculty member would just do lectures, that could make a big difference.”

If CSU doesn’t agree to any COVID-19-related relief, President Joe Biden’s proposal to extend paid COVID-19-related leave could force their hand. It’s part of Biden’s COVID-19-relief plan, which is making its way through Congress and would expire in September. It would give nearly all American workers 14 weeks or more of paid leave, depending on the situation. Companies with more than 500 employees would be required to offer the leave and pay for it. Those employers with fewer than 500 employees would be reimbursed in a payroll tax credit.

* Story originally published by EdSource.