Danielle Garneau, who is understanding of student-parents’ struggles, keeps photos of her children in her office. One photo shows her son joining her in her research.
By Aleksandra Sidorova
A Cardinal Points article published Nov. 4 reported the experiences of a professor and a student juggling their responsibilities as caregivers as well as work and study at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Assistant Professor Akanksha Misra and Diana Cathcart, who is pursuing a master’s in clinical mental health counseling, shared their struggles and hoped to receive more support and recognition from the SUNY Plattsburgh campus.
It may also be in SUNY Plattsburgh’s interest to support the student-parent population, currently of an uncertain size, to boost enrollment, retention and student success.
KIDS AND CLASS
In a previous interview, Cathcart said most of her professors were accommodating of her missing class to take care of her two boys, 5 and 8, who were sick with a cold. Not all of them, though.
While there are Title IX regulations for accommodating students through pregnancy and childbirth, there are no regulations specifically addressing a situation like Cathcart’s. Interim Title IX Coordinator Ann James said that if she received a report about a professor refusing accommodations for such an instance, she would email them asking to accommodate the student, but there is nothing more she can currently do. James hopes new Title IX regulations, which have been in the works since May 2021 on an executive order from President Joe Biden, will do more to support student parents beyond pregnancy and childbirth.
Lecturer of Human Development and Family Relations Nancy Hughes said the department allows students a full week of classes’ worth of free absences every semester and penalizes further absences. Hughes said she would approach student-parent emergencies and decide on accommodations on an individual basis, but advised student-parents to use the free absences.
For some professors, accommodating student-parents is a given.
Danielle Garneau, associate professor of environmental science, said she understands the difficulties student-parents face as a parent of two boys herself. Garneau said there have been times when she had to postpone, cancel or cut a class short due to an emergency, and her students have been accommodating, so she extends the same treatment to students facing similar situations.
“I’ve been there,” Garneau said. “As a parent, I completely understand.”
Garneau’s students can access resources such as recordings of lab work and lectures on the class Moodle page. Garneau also said COVID-19 taught educational institutions they can flexibly navigate education “and still be a human.”
Hughes recalled seeing a few of her students’ children at lectures, and she didn’t mind. Distinguished Teaching Professor of Geology David Franzi recalled an instance about 30 years ago when a student brought their infant child to a lab class.
Professors’ accommodations allowed Kimberly Giron, a second-year student of the speech language pathology master’s program, both to start a family and to further herself in her career. Giron communicated with all her professors and work supervisors since she was pregnant to arrange accommodations and figure out the dates and times she would have off to stay on track in her studies. Professors sent Giron lecture recordings and supplementary resources and checked in with her. Her cohort — the students in her year — are a “great set of friends” who checked up on her and visited her. The support and accommodations all helped Giron continue her education, she said.
“I believed I was important,” Giron said.
Giron said professors gave her two options: to take the rest of the semester off after she gave birth or return to class two weeks after, having made up all the work. She chose the latter and is set to graduate on time. The key was time management, Giron said.
Giron knows she is not alone: her professors assured her it was possible to start a family without sacrificing her education, and another student in her cohort is a parent, too.
But overall, professors don’t see, in Franzi’s words, “too, too many” student-parents. Garneau estimates she has one to two student-parents in a school year.
“WHERE ARE THESE STUDENT-PARENTS?”
SUNY Plattsburgh’s Child Care Center at Sibley Hall doesn’t see many student-parents, either.
The center tries to divide its 52 free spaces equally between students and staff, but the ratio is almost never upheld: most of the children at the Child Care Center belong to SUNY Plattsburgh staff. Child Care Center Director Sally Girard said the center was “struggling” to find student-parents who might enroll their children, even reaching out to Clinton Community College.
“Surprisingly, the numbers are not high,” Girard said. “Where are these student-parents?”
Girard said there are cases when student-parents call the Child Care Center expressing interest in enrolling their child, but either call at a point when all spaces had already been filled or eventually choose not to attend SUNY Plattsburgh at all.
There is no data on SUNY Plattsburgh’s student-parent population because the college does not collect data on its students’ parental status.
“There’s nobody to contact on campus to find out who are the student parents, because people don’t collect that data,” Girard said.
Interim Director of Student Financial Services Kerry Lubold did not share exact numbers, but said less than 5% of the FAFSA applicants indicate having a dependent. However, FAFSA application numbers are also not an accurate reflection of the overall student population, because it does not take into account non-matriculated students, international students, degree and certificate programs not eligible for financial aid and students with “their own means of paying for college,” Lubold wrote in an email response.
In the case the FAFSA applications were a reliable estimate, less than 237 of SUNY Plattsburgh’s 4,738 students are parents, but the number will remain unclear until the college starts collecting such data.
MONROE DOES IT BETTER
In some ways, Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, is similar to SUNY Plattsburgh. Both are SUNY schools, and both have facilities to support student-parents such as a child care center and family friendly study rooms at their libraries. But unlike SUNY Plattsburgh, Monroe knows how many of its students are parents and who they are, and it’s made a difference.
Mary Ann DeMario, institutional research specialist at Monroe, researched student-parents and the issues they face for almost two decades. The college started surveying its students’ marital and parental status in 2003 — the first college in the nation to do so.
So when Katie Ghidiu, Monroe’s library director, noticed students bringing their children with them to the library, she knew whom to tell when she set up a family-friendly study room on each of the college’s two campuses in 2019. The study rooms now get so much use that there is sometimes a waitlist, Ghidiu said.
Not only were the family-friendly study rooms promoted directly to student-parents, but the windows into the rooms, showing colorful rugs, craft supplies and children’s books, are clearly visible from the library’s entrance. There are also signs promoting the rooms.
The family-friendly study room at SUNY Plattsburgh, although open since October, has not yet been used, Feinberg Library Director Elin O’Hara-Gonya said. There are no signs to point students to Room 315, on the third floor of the library, either.
Monroe started collecting data on student-parents when its child care center was applying for a grant and continued every semester, issuing surveys when students register for classes.
DeMario’s research found that student-parents amount to 18-31% of Monroe’s student population, and two-thirds are single mothers. FAFSA applications give an estimate of less than 5%, while the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that one in five college students is a parent.
Working with student-parents forms the basis for DeMario’s work.
“This population is so valuable because if we can support them to get through college and graduate, there’s a good chance that their kids will also want to go to college someday,” DeMario said. “And in that way we’re able to help multiple generations.”
Girard and Jamie Basiliere, executive director of the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country, have advocated for child care together for 30 years.
“The field needs advocacy, that’s for sure,” Girard said.
Girard said the pandemic resulted in many child care professionals leaving the field, but the minimum qualifications for child care workers have been raised as well, making it more difficult for child care centers to hire staff.
“Oftentimes people will say, ‘Well, expand. There’s a need on this campus. Expand,’” Girard said. “We had a teacher position open for an entire year. You can’t find qualified people, and we would never expand if we weren’t confident that we could find qualified staff, because then what are you providing for children?”
However, Girard thinks the minimum wage increases have created a bigger problem for hiring than the pandemic. Minimum wage has steadily been increasing in New York state by $1 per hour every year.
“We’re giving this awesome responsibility to our teaching staff, and we’re competing with places like fast food restaurants and retail,” Girard said. “And those people are well-deserving of minimum wage increases, but as theirs is increasing, we can’t keep up.”
Low pay for child care workers is not a new issue, either. In her folder, Girard keeps a clip from Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican published in 1998, featuring an article by Ellen Goodman from the Boston Globe Newspaper Company titled, “Childcare workers most underpaid.”
“Part of me was like, ‘This is discouraging.’ We’ve been doing this how long?” Girard said. “I love my job. I do love advocating, but I want to see progress.”
Grants and additional funding from the state are helpful, but are not a long-term solution, Girard said. The Child Care Center was able to hire six students as paid interns in January and February thanks to a grant, but the grant has not been renewed, meaning the internship program can’t continue. The temporary nature of additional funds do not allow the Child Care Center to expand its services nor increase its staff’s salaries, Girard said.
A child care center’s only reliable income is the tuition parents pay. For SUNY Plattsburgh’s Child Care Center, that is $245 a week per child. But “parents cannot afford the true cost of child care,” Basiliere said.
Child care centers have to pay for staff to cover a 10-hour day, staff benefits, heat and utilities, insurances that come at “no small price for a child care center,” food and taxes, Basiliere said. This amounts to about $11,000 a year for SUNY Plattsburgh. Tuition can’t go up, either, or parents couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it.
According to Basiliere, there are also fewer child care programs and slots in the North Country, with Clinton county losing the most in the past year — the county’s child care providers can serve 91 fewer children — as a result of a combination of funding and staff issues. Some child care providers closed during the pandemic and never reopened, and some could no longer make ends meet after the pandemic, Basiliere said.
Girard lies awake at night pondering solutions to the problems the child care field faces. The only way for child care centers to hire more staff would be for governments to subsidize child care from infancy to kindergarten the way it subsidizes education at public schools, Girard said.
“I think it’s the only way our country is really going to resolve the problem,” Girard said. “And how will that happen?”
“I don’t know,” Basiliere answered. “That would be a very fundamental change.”
“Yeah,” Girard nodded. “But I think it’s going to take fundamental change to create a system that is supportive of families and supportive of the people who work in the field.”
Despite the long-persisting problems that come with running a daycare, the Child Care Center can make a difference for student-parents.
Giron’s 8-month-old daughter is enrolled in the Child Care Center. The center’s staff sends Giron frequent updates about her daughter: how her day went, how she ate, how her mood is, how talkative she is, if she needs her mom — all information Giron considers valuable. Care providers also follow up with Giron outside of daycare hours.
“That was really meaningful to me, because it means that they care,” Giron said.
With three other babies in the classroom, Giron feels her daughter gets more attention from caretakers than she would at a daycare with twice the number of babies in a class.
Besides the quality of care, money and distance also influenced Giron’s decision to enroll her daughter in SUNY Plattsburgh’s Child Care Center. SUNY Plattsburgh can provide Child Care Center tuition subsidies to student-parents part of the federal Child Care and Development Fund, allowing Giron to pay $30 a week in tuition instead of the standard $245.
“What an incredible gift,” Girard said. “We’ve been able to see student families graduate from college because we have that funding available.”
Giron is always at Sibley working at the Speech & Hearing Center and attending classes, so her daughter is within 50 steps of her at all times. She can visit her if she gets a spare minute.
“It gave me peace of mind that she was in good hands and that I was super close to her, so that if there was an emergency, I can go right over and be there for her if she needed me,” Giron said. “Because she’s my priority.”
Giron described a feeling of separation she had when she dropped her daughter off at her in-laws’ house to run some errands.
“I felt like me and my baby had a piece of gum holding us together, and as I drove away, the gum kept getting further stretched,” Giron said. “Being here at Sibley, I don’t have to feel that way.”
The support Giron got from the Child Care Center, her professors, supervisors, family and peers helped her continue her education while achieving her dream of early motherhood.
“It is difficult, and it’s stressful, and it feels impossible sometimes,” Giron said. “You just have to stay positive and have that support system and be super confident in yourself that you can do it and that you have the ability to not only be a great mother, but also a great student.”