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SC governor's in-person work order leaves CofC staff with just weeks to find child care

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The Cistern Yard in front of Randolph Hall remains quiet on a sunny afternoon at the College of Charleston on June 29, 2020, in Charleston. College staff members are struggling to find child care after an executive order gives them just weeks to return to the office. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

College of Charleston staff members who do not teach classes are struggling to adapt after an executive order required all state employees to return to work in person immediately.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s March 5 order directed all state agencies to “immediately expedite the transition back to normal operations,” prompting publicly funded institutions like the college to send their employees back to the office.

At the College of Charleston, the order is causing stress among staff members, such as administration, admissions workers, advisers and financial aid workers, who are struggling to find child care options on short notice.

According to the college’s return-to-work plan, which was submitted to the S.C. Department of Administration, staff members will return in phases, with staff who need child care returning April 5 and staff with disabilities or medical concerns returning April 26.

The college opted to not disrupt current class schedules or teaching models, so professors will continue to teach a mix of in-person and remote classes as they have been since the beginning of the school year.

Because widespread vaccine availability has been able to ease some of the concern about the virus, the biggest stressor has to do with child care.

Although she has been working in person since the summer, Anastasia Gilpatrick, a College of Charleston staff member and chair of the staff advisory committee, said the order sent her and other staff members scrambling to find solutions for their child care. 

"I do have children that are in care centers; that means that I need to leave work a little bit early and now I'm unsure about how I'm going to make this work," Gilpatrick said. "A lot of people are scrambling in a very short time period to come up with a full child care option."

Gilpatrick said many child care centers and after-school programs are full, leaving staff with few options.

For those with school-age children, the return to in-person work would mean moving some students from virtual to in-person school at the end of the school year. Some staff members, mostly women, may have to cut their work hours to adapt to the change, she said. 

"If we truly honor academic excellence, we should not be causing further disruption to the education of our wider community, which includes our preschoolers and primary school kids," she said. 

While faculty members are not disrupted by the transition to in-person work, professors have shared overall disagreement with the order. The S.C. Conference of the AAUP sent a letter to the Governor’s Office asking that colleges and universities be given autonomy in their return-to-work plans.

“We look forward to a time in the near future when South Carolina colleges and universities can return to normal, face-to-face activities, but a premature, one-size-fits-all policy jeopardizes that prospect,” the conference’s executive council wrote.

“The health and safety of students, faculty, and staff should be the primary consideration in decision making about when to reopen a campus as well as decisions about all aspects of campus operation during the pandemic,” their note said.

The association of professors isn’t the only group to come out against the order. The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina wrote a letter demanding that McMaster either rescind the order while the pandemic continues or delay it until June 15. McMaster’s spokesman told a Post and Courier reporter that the governor has no intention of meeting those demands.

The college’s leadership recognized the hardship the order places on its staff. College President Andrew Hsu said the administration requested an extra week for people who needed to find child care in its original plan, which the state denied.

“Our original goal was, of course, to provide employees a little bit more time so that they can figure out where to send their children. Or if they have health care issues, give them time to get vaccinated,” Hsu said. “All state agencies are at the same place where everybody has to comply.”

The college’s plan is in line with plans approved for other colleges in the region. According to plans submitted to DOA, Clemson University and Trident Technical College are requiring employees who are caregivers return April 5. The Citadel required employees, except for one individual with a medical accommodation, to return March 8.

To help support staff members who are struggling with child care, College of Charleston leadership has been in contact with school district superintendents, provided resources for finding child care and has looked into expanding the early childhood center to provide on-campus day care for employees, Hsu said.

Any staff members who have a medical concern will need to provide a doctor’s note to be able to work from home, Hsu said. Those employees are scheduled to return April 26, unless their doctor’s note says otherwise.

However, employees with a household member who is considered high risk for severe illness due to the virus won't have the same luxury.

According to DOA information given to the college in regards to the order, those employees will be expected to return to work. The DOA cited the American with Disabilities Act, which does not apply when a person has a family or household member with a disability. 

Gilpatrick said staff members are advocating for those employees to be able to use a special request process to work remotely part time or for a limited time. 

"They need additional time to either obtain vaccinations or work with their departments to address concerns or possible modifications to their work practices or their work place to make it safe for them," she said. 

Many staff members have not been vaccinated because they were not eligible until recently, Gilpatrick added. 

Officials haven’t expressly said what will happen if staff members don’t return to work in person by the scheduled date. Paul Patrick, chief of staff at the college, said each situation will be handled individually.

“Just as we do with any performance, efficiency or absentee issue, it is addressed on a case-by-case basis,” Patrick said. “We’ll work with the supervisor of the employee and HR to find out what we need to do to rectify the situation.”

Gilpatrick said she and other staff understand that college leadership is unable to deviate from the state order. However, she would like to see the administration advocate for more flexibility.  

"At a minimum, college staff should not be forced to return full-time in-person if they have virtual schoolers at home that need to finish out their academic year," she said. "Also, the college should allow supervisors to have the same flexibility that they had pre-pandemic to allow their employees to work. Offices are going to suffer, because people are going to be forced to either take reduced hours or unusual schedules."

Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.

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