She is Fierce: Coronavirus pandemic amplifies gender, financial inequality

Elizabeth Tapia’s schedule has been upended since moving back to San Jose to start online classes.

While the junior, who is majoring in health promotion and disease prevention, no longer has to attend club meetings or work her on-campus job, she must now balance studying for chemistry and statistics with proofreading essays for her younger brother, tutoring and grabbing groceries. 

She spends about three hours every day helping her family with different tasks and sometimes doesn’t start her assignments until 10 p.m. On top of that, during classes she has to message friends for help when her Wi-Fi cuts out or Zoom drains the battery from her laptop.

Her professors have shown a range of approaches when handling the transition to online courses and adjusting to students’ needs. Tapia’s chemistry professor hasn’t changed his syllabus, while her Spanish instructor made classes and the final paper optional in case students can’t participate. 

“It takes off a lot of the burden on students being really worried if they’ll still be able to get a good grade in their classes,” she said.

Growing up, Tapia said her parents often looked to her as an extra caregiver for her brother and someone to help around the house, partly because she was the oldest of the two siblings. She’s now dealing with those same responsibilities while shouldering a much heavier course load.

For Tapia, some of this responsibility comes with age, but women across the country are dealing with extra burdens as they’re expected to work from home while also taking care of children who need to be homeschooled. And for students whose parents work essential jobs and can’t be home, the responsibility may be placed on them to care for younger siblings and older relatives, while they also try to listen to lectures, write papers and take exams. 

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a problem women know too well; even in a purported age of feminism, we’re often expected to carry most of the weight when it comes to child care and household chores with little credit. A 2020 Gallup survey found that straight couples aged 18 to 34 and their older counterparts were just as likely to leave cleaning, cooking and washing clothes to women. 

Universities’ handling of the coronavirus has also further emphasized how institutions often ignore the needs of first-generation and low-income students. At Harvard University, students were told March 10 they had five days to leave their dorms, even though not all students could afford to make last-minute travel arrangements. Arizona State University president Michael Crow told The Arizona Republic that considering housing refunds was at the bottom of his to-do list, even though that money could help students pay for necessary expenses.

USC and other institutions have tried to alleviate some of these issues by allowing students who can’t easily come home to stay in university housing, giving prorated refunds on room and board fees and extending the pass/fail option to all courses to help students who will face issues attending classes. 

But the burden also falls on instructors to better accommodate students who have to take on extra responsibilities at home or work more jobs to help pay the bills. Meika Loe and her colleague Nimanthi Rajasingham, both women’s studies professors at Colgate University, will hold optional synchronous class and revamp their syllabi to include assignments meant to alleviate their students’ anxieties. 

“As far as I’m concerned, everyone can get an A, and I’m not interested in testing,” Rajasingham said. “But I think this is the moment where we think about what we can learn together.”

Once Trousdale Parkway is again (hopefully) bustling with students in the fall, professors must realize that the circumstances students face at home during the pandemic may be similar when they’re on campus. 

At every university, there are students who try to balance multiple campus jobs to make ends meet, help care for relatives or deal with mental health issues while taking a full course load. Administrators and professors aren’t going to know every student’s circumstances, but they can learn from this moment to be more lenient with assignments, attendance and grading and to extend that generosity when students return to campus. 

That way, students who need to can focus more on taking care of themselves and their loved ones rather than stressing over letters on a transcript. And for those who argue that a more forgiving teaching style encourages laziness, take these examples. 

For Tapia’s Spanish class, she doesn’t need to attend Zoom classes or turn in a final paper, but she plans on showing up and doing the work every time because she enjoys the course.

And in 2001, when Loe taught at UC Santa Barbara, she was shocked when everyone came to class several hours after terrorists hit the Twin Towers to be a support system for one another. Ever since, she’s changed her approach to be more flexible with students.

“In all institutions, the more we can humanize and understand who we’re working with and what their resources are and what their challenges are, we can do a better job as educators,” she said. “This is the care ethic that we’ve lost in a world that promotes masculinism.”

Andrea Klick is a sophomore writing about women’s identities. Her column, “She is Fierce,” runs every other Monday.