Kendra Bergenske
Division of Arts and Science, Western Iowa Tech Community College

Clay Harmon
Office of International Affairs, University of Colorado Denver

Kari Shafenberg
Transfer Initiatives, University of Colorado Denver


Responding to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, universities and colleges across the United States transformed into remote institutions nearly overnight. This caused a swift, widespread increase in telework. The transition left employees who were also caregivers balancing their work with newly homebound children or dependent adults. Caregiving especially impacted women, people of color, and employees whose partners were deemed essential workers. As campuses began reopening in the fall, institutions attempted to balance their fiscal and productivity responsibilities with their employees’ health, safety, and dependent care needs. This case uses the fictional Magnolia State University to probe the university’s decision to re-impose restrictions on childcare while telecommuting, and its impact on faculty and staff.

Keywords: caregiving; childcare; college; contingency theory; coronavirus; dependent care; employment policy; higher education; leadership; organizational leadership; remote work; staffing policy; telework; equity; university; work from home

Cite as: Bergenske, K., Harmon, C., & Shafenberg, K. (2021). Working nine to five? Universities and caregiving in the age of COVID-19. Cases on Leadership for Equity and Justice in Higher Education, 2021(6).

The spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States forced leaders at American colleges and universities to make decisions that upended every aspect of their institutions. In response to the pandemic, many schools made abrupt transitions to telecommuting, meaning critical work in instruction, student services, and information processing moved to employees’ homes. The fundamental question many leaders found they suddenly had to answer after this shift was how does an institution balance its need for a productive, accountable workforce with the personal needs of its faculty and staff during a time of widespread remote working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? Higher education is traditionally viewed as being guided by a higher moral purpose, which is magnified during periods of uncertainty. Although it is organizationally bureaucratic in nature, higher education’s underlying humanistic tendencies saddle leaders with balancing its moral obligation to community against fiscal responsibility.

Background and Context: Two Full-time Jobs

In March 2020, many colleges across the United States moved to operating remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Burke, 2020). Before campus closures, it was common for telecommuting policies to require employees with children or other dependents in their homes to arrange for external caregiving services during working hours. When universities transitioned to telecommuting in spring of 2020, employees were forced to balance professional obligations and caregiving, as many schools, daycares, and adult caregiving services were also closing their doors. As fall approached and some institutions made plans for a campus return, higher education administrators reviewed their policies regarding caregiving during work hours, including implications for at-home child or dependent care. As a result, some institutions attempted to require staff to find alternate means of childcare during working hours. This decision led to a swift backlash, as many university and college staff were still working full-time from home, while also managing remote schooling for their children or adult dependents.

In some cases, university officials expressed concern about the obligations of at-home caregiving impacting staff members’ productivity and focus. For some select institutions, the re-introduction of more restrictive caregiving policies were limited specifically to staff, excluding faculty from the same requirements. Reports on gender, race, and ethnicity of college constituents from The Chronicle of Higher Education (2017) indicated the staff members most likely to have caregiving obligations at home were women, people of color, and low-wage earners.

One very public example saw faculty take the side of their staff colleagues and express concerns to institutional leadership, calling out the gender and racial implications of these policy decisions. Not long after the public response, administration ultimately reversed their policy restrictions. Despite the change in caregiving policy, this reaction to staff balancing their work lives with the daily needs of their families exposed the increasing burden of pandemic-era caregiving, which has fallen primarily to women. While schools and care centers remain closed, the needs of children and dependent adults still must be met.

Case Narrative: Magnolia State University

Part One

Lynn Vance works for a mid-sized, public, four-year state school, Magnolia State University (MSU), in the Student Affairs office, supporting the Director of Advising and a team of advisors. Her team has twice-monthly staff meetings, and she meets with her director once a week to discuss projects, workload, and her professional development. She is also a single mother of two, a 7 year old son and a 5 year old daughter. Both children attend public school in second grade and kindergarten, respectively, and are enrolled in the school-provided before and after care program, which provides homework assistance and social activities. In the summer and on scheduled school closures, parents may pay to have full-day care provided for any enrolled student.

In March 2020, with rising cases of COVID-19 in her area, Lynn receives an email from her children’s school announcing spring break will begin the next day, two days ahead of schedule, and all schools will be closed for at least two weeks. While her campus has allowed telecommuting for some senior staff in the past, it has been a limited option with a detailed policy on appropriate telecommuting practices, including maintaining a strict dress code, several accountability measures, and a multi-level approval process culminating at the vice president level. The policy also explicitly states, providing care for adult dependents or children while telecommuting is prohibited and part of the approval process may include providing care plans to Human Resources for review.

Though she has not been able to make use of this policy in the past, Lynn contacts her supervisor to ask if she may telecommute while her children are home for this two-week window. Not only does she have several projects at various stages of completion, she has no alternative for childcare. The care program associated with the elementary school is shut down while the classrooms are closed. The initial response from her supervisor is to use her personal leave time rather than work remotely. As local school districts shut their doors in response to the pandemic, the university leadership considers permitting staff to work from home temporarily, but until such a decision is shared, staff with families at home are required to request personal time if they are not able to come to their office.

By the beginning of the following week, Magnolia State responds to the growing health threat by pivoting to online learning and remote work for all staff. Any staff member who is working remotely must ensure they have the necessary equipment and bandwidth to connect to the university network, take calls, and be available for online meetings. The requirement to find alternative childcare is temporarily suspended as more schools and districts close.

A week later, the elementary school sends an update that the school year will be completed online. Though a difficult transition, Lynn manages to balance homeschooling her children for the rest of their academic year while meeting her required minimum of 40 hours of university work, often through a combination of working early mornings, late evenings, and the occasional weekend. She still attends her regularly scheduled meetings over Zoom, and her children periodically wave to the meeting attendees. She structures her children’s activities around her meetings when possible, but the occasional interruption does occur. As the sole caregiver and earner, she feels the weight of ensuring her children are engaged and safe during the day while also meeting her deadlines and all identified deliverables.

As fall approaches, the cases of COVID-19 in her community begin spiking, with hospitalizations increasing and case positivity rates rising. Some counties begin re-closing businesses to slow the spread of the virus. Lynn’s children have been on summer break for the last two months, and the elementary school is asking parents to decide between a fully in-class return to school, or fully remote learning. There is no hybrid option, but the school also acknowledges that the in-class option might revert to remote learning if there are positive cases once children return. Many local childcare centers have closed, and those remaining open have increased their rates due to the increased need for safety measures and cleaning protocols. The school-provided care center no longer permits drop-in attendance, and all bus services are cancelled.

A few days before the deadline to determine her children’s learning environment, Lynn receives a communication from her university’s Return to Campus committee. She learns that while staff will not necessarily be required to return to campus, the university’s previous telecommuting policy, specifically regarding staff working while providing care to dependents, will be reinstated in full. Deviation from the policy may result in staff losing the privilege of telecommuting. All staff members who are primary caregivers for children or adult dependents must use their paid personal time when providing care for anyone in the home during normal business hours, or provide documentation of alternative care. Employees who fear they will deplete their paid leave are encouraged to use time provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act). The Act provides an additional two weeks of paid family leave to existing paid time off, through December 31, 2020. After that date, the Act provides some additional paid leave, but at two-thirds of the staff member’s salary (US Department of Labor, 2020). While Lynn is grateful to have her limited leave options expanded, she is also a dedicated staff member with many pressing projects and is uncertain how she could be away from her role for such an extended window.

With no family network, schools closed, and an uncertain future, Lynn must now decide how to provide care for her children while simultaneously protecting the job that is the sole source of income and health benefits for her family.

Part Two

Lynn shares her frustrations in an online parenting group, expressing her concerns for the future and her lack of options for childcare. She receives an outpouring of support from local parents, including other staff members of MSU. Several comments from the online forum are published on Twitter and Facebook, and within a matter of days, the reaction of working caregivers to the reinstatement of the original telecommuting policy goes viral. A scathing op-ed is published in the city’s major newspaper, outlining the challenges all parents are facing since lockdowns began.

The university releases a statement clarifying that the return to the original policy will not impact their 2,300 faculty, only staff. According to MSU’s most recent Institutional Research reporting 56% of faculty identify as male and 80% are white, while 58% of staff identify as female. Only 25% of administrators identify as people of color, compared to 42% of service and maintenance staff. Several members of the faculty speak out in support of the university staff, decrying the policy changes as inequitable, and many tenured faculty post on social media or give statements to the press regarding the concern about the decision.

Within days, the university releases a second clarification stating, while the original policy will remain in place as previously announced, they remain committed to the safety and wellness of their faculty and staff, and understand flexibility is essential in these difficult times. Staff are encouraged to work with their individual supervisors to discuss options. The university makes no further statement regarding dependent care or telecommuting.

Questions for Analysis and Discussion

  1. What is/are the leadership challenge(s) in this case?
  2. Who are the stakeholders, and what are their (possibly competing) priorities?
  3. What unique characteristics associated with higher education separate this situation from similar challenges in another industry?
  4. Does your interpretation of this case differ depending on whether Lynn Vance is white or a person of color? If so, how? (See the statistics listed above.)
  5. How would you resolve the central challenge in this case? Which leadership theory(ies) would you use and why?

Teaching Notes

The case can be combined with activities and discussions tied to current events and student experiences and can explore both theory and application of potential solutions. This case focuses on a problem without an easy solution, and conversation is likely to generate more questions than answers. The activities listed in this section may be combined in various ways and would be equally effective in all teaching modalities.

Digital Artifacts to Open Discussion

Engaging students in a creative endeavor can be an easy way to start a difficult conversation.

  1. Assign students to make a meme or find a meme related to caregiving or remote working to begin discussion. Share these as a whole class, in groups, or in a discussion post.
  2. Assign students to find tweets or other social media posts exemplifying the struggle of working from home with children or adult dependents. Share these as a whole class, in groups, or in a discussion post.
  3. Identify posts or memes depicting working from home with pets. Cats seem to be always in the way, and dogs try to save you from the mailman during important Zoom calls.

Leadership Theories

Graduate students in higher education should be familiar with various theories of organizational leadership and should be able to apply one or more theories in their analysis of this case, either from the perspective of Lynn or the university leadership. The following brief summary highlights a few theories the authors find to be particularly relevant and instructive, and which may form the basis for effective discussions of this case. This list, however, is by no means exhaustive.

Contingency Theory

Contingency theorists like Fiedler (1967) would argue MSU’s original message about returning to the standard telecommuting policy did not take into account the contingencies surrounding the organization. Given the COVID-19 pandemic's impacts on MSU employees’ lives, the situation called for leadership behaviors on the relationship end of the spectrum (e.g. emphasizing health and safety, care for employees, and flexibility in work practices). But instead, MSU initially used task-based behavior, focusing on timesheets and productivity. MSU could have avoided much difficulty in this case—discontented employees, unclear policy directives, and damage to the institution’s national reputation—by applying leadership that matched the situation from the beginning.

Higher Education Institutions as Open Systems

COVID-19 has shaken our traditional notions of the higher education institution as an organization. Never has the environmental suprasystem intruded so fully and directly into the organization, and never have the organization's boundaries been quite so indistinct (Brazer, Bauer & Johnson, 2019). Under these conditions, the managerial subsystem (represented here by HR) would do well to consider the environment's effects on the other subsystems—in particular the psychosocial and technical subsystems—when making important decisions. In the case, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of MSU’s operations, as well as its employees’ professional and personal lives. HR’s attempt to reinstate the standard telecommuting policy reflects an institutional blind spot in the newly open organizational system at MSU.

Organizational Politics

A political reading of this case goes outside the organization's traditional boundaries, as well. In its initial messaging, MSU’s central HR office relied on what French and Raven (1959) would identify as its legitimate and coercive power bases when it moved to reinstate the standard telecommuting policy. However, Burns (1978) would point out that HR failed to consider the various interest groups and how they might react to protect their respective interests. In the age of COVID, faculty and staff used social media-based tactics to gain widespread attention. This generated a huge, citywide coalition composed of both internal and external actors, which forced HR to bargain on its original position not once, but twice. It is interesting to note that, at the end of Part Two, the political struggle was not resolved. Although employees are encouraged to emphasize their health and safety, and telecommuting is allowed, HR has not explicitly repealed the standard policy. The HR office has not provided any guidance reconciling these two apparently contradictory facts, other than encouraging employees to work with their supervisors. The implication is that bargaining continues.

Frames of Leadership (Bolman & Gallos)

Bolman and Gallos’s (2011) four frames of leadership provide a helpful distillation of various leadership theories into clear and actionable ways of understanding. Students who take an approach using these frames might trace the incident’s path as follows: At first, HR based their actions on the structural frame, emphasizing rules, procedures, and rational analysis. Next, faculty and staff pushed back in the political frame, forcing a negotiation based on competing interests in a resource-limited environment. Finally, MSU recognized the value of the human frame by allowing for flexibility and stressing the importance of health and safety.

Further Discussion Questions

In this section, we have provided questions that add depth and further detail. These questions can be used in any modality and can be used synchronously or asynchronously in discussion posts or journaling. They can be used in conjunction with the theories listed in the previous section, or with the links to articles that are listed in the Appendix.

  1. How might employers prepare themselves for employees who have limited access to dependent care? What resources do they need to provide in terms of physical resources? How might job descriptions, workloads, and expectations about time-driven work needs to be adjusted?
  2. In a world where employees work from home (or live at work), how might employers have to amend their policies to accommodate employees working from home?
  3. Is the COVID-19 pandemic closing the gender gap or widening it? Provide examples of how men and women may be benefiting and suffering negative effects in relation to working from home.
  4. Who is the most at risk when an organization is forced to change its ways? Why are they at risk and how can they be better supported?
  5. Imagine the COVID-19 pandemic happened sometime in the past—say 2010, or even further back, the year 2000. Would businesses have survived? What about institutions of higher education? What specifically makes 2020 a time when working from home is a possibility for many higher education employees? In what ways was our infrastructure prepared for this and in what ways were we not prepared?
  6. In what ways has life adapted to working from home? Can we go back? Should we go back? In what ways is society not ready to work from home and what is the impact on relationships—any kind of relationship, if life never returns to “normal?”


Bolman, L. G., & Gallos, J. V. (2011). Reframing academic leadership. Jossey-Bass.

Burke, L. (2020, June 30). Florida State bars parenting during remote work. Inside Higher Ed.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership (1st ed.). Harper & Row.

Brazer, S., Bauer, S. & Johnson, B. (2019). Leading schools to learn, grow and thrive. Routledge.

Fiedler, F. E. (1967). A theory of leadership effectiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

French, J & Raven, B (1959) Bases of social power. In S. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 259-269). ISR.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (2017, August 13). Gender, race, and ethnicity of college administrators, faculty, and staff, fall 2015.

US Department of Labor. (2020). Families first coronavirus response act: Employee paid leave rights. Retrieved July 14 from

Appendix: Additional Teaching Resources

Digital Artifacts

Memes, social media posts, and text messages can all be used to add richness to the analysis of the case and can be used as an introductory assignment. It is often nearly impossible to attribute memes accurately, so they should not be used in formal assignments and always with recognition of copyright and intellectual property rights when possible.

Examples of Digital Artifacts: Memes and Social Media Posts

A meme that reads: I'm upstairs on my laptop. My wife is downstairs with the kids. She's texting me a rolling list of who's grounded. Working from home is going well.
Borreson, K. (2020, September 8)

A meme that reads: What I say: "please be quiet this is an important phone call!" What my kids hear: BATTLE ROYALE! IT'S A FIGHT TO THE DEATH! *body slam*
Adomaite & Tymulis, 2020

A meme with a man and two children making funny faces to a laptop that reads: When you're on a never-ending conference call and your kids be like...
(Virtual Vocations, 2020)