By Kyrstin Hill, Creative Discovery Museum
For working parents of young children, finding quality, affordable, flexible childcare was already difficult before the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2019 poll done by New York Times Parenting and YouGov, an international polling and marketing company, 28 percent of U.S. respondents reported childcare as being a “very significant financial strain,” with average costs consuming 37 percent of a family’s average household income. Now, almost a year into the pandemic, with limited capacities, unexpected closures, and tighter budgets, this challenge has not diminished.
Children’s museums across the country have a variety of different missions but most center on supporting children and families in their communities. But does that translate to supporting the children and families of those on staff? Is it possible? Can it be done equitably?
Those are some of the questions Creative Discovery Museum’s Babies at Work Task Force brought to the table in the fall of 2019. Historically, Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) has bolstered a family-first environment through its Children of Staff policy, which allowed staff members to bring their children, grandchildren, or siblings to work as long as productivity wasn’t disrupted.
“I always was very appreciative of the option to bring the kids with me when I needed to,” said Brianna Daignault, CDM’s membership coordinator and mother to Charlie (10) and Autumn (8). “The family-first mentality at CDM is amazing, especially in my department. As long as I was able to complete my work and be available, I could still be a mom.”
However, for obvious reasons, this accommodation typically applied to older children, not babies. I became pregnant in October 2018. I was eager to find a way to maximize time with my infant after my maternity leave ended. I was also eager to get back to a job I loved.
Research has shown that allowing parents to bring their babies to work has a wide variety of benefits for the health and well-being of the parent and the infant. Based on that research, coupled with the complete support from museum leadership, a policy was in development to allow parents and infants to clock in together. Near the end of 2019, two staff members in different departments, both parents of babies, were bringing their young ones to work with them on a regular basis. I was lucky enough to be one of them.
The task force began tackling the challenge of making the policy as equitable as possible across departments and among staff who did not have children. Based on a template from the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, the task force created a policy addressing topics such as crying babies and unhappy staff members. I was used as a test case to see if our policy could work. It did, but I had an office mostly to myself with a door—a luxury many staff members did not have. Equity remained our biggest challenge.
Then COVID hit. CDM closed to the public on March 14. Supporting working parents and their families was no longer an option: it had to happen. And for the majority of staff, it had to happen remotely.
Over time, the fears and logistical hurdles of remote work were alleviated. Staff continued to be productive, and in some cases, were even more productive. Weekly full staff meetings via Zoom created stronger internal communications. IT capabilities were assessed and modified to meet remote work needs of all staff. Paid sick leave was extended in the event that a staff member needed to care for themselves or a sick family member. In June 2020, CDM was lucky to be able to reopen to the public.
But for some staff members, returning to work at the museum created even more challenges. Many families opted to keep their kids at home to do remote schooling. Some schools and childcare centers were operating on flex schedules. In the first phase of re-opening, children of staff weren’t allowed to come to the museum for safety reasons.
“Since we were encouraged to work from home and my kids were already home, it worked out,” said Daignault. “But when I was needed on the floor more when we first re-opened, it was challenging. My kids were still out of school. I was relying heavily on my family for daycare.”
Daignault wasn’t alone. In keeping with the museum’s commitment to support children and families in our community, the museum launched Destination Discovery @ CDM (DD @ CDM), an academic support program from children in kindergarten through fifth grade. Certified teachers helped no more than ten students per museum “classroom” stay on top of their virtual schoolwork Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parents could go back to work knowing that their children were in a learning-rich, safe environment where informal and formal learning worked together to help students succeed in an unfathomable school year. And DD@CDM family enrollees included CDM staff.
“Jay is currently in DD @ CDM three to four days per week,” said Amanda Ward, mother of Jay (8) and Sarah (2), and CDM’s museum educator and volunteer manager. “We are fortunate to have a place for Jay that is affordable and enables us to keep working full-time. Without DD @ CDM, I would probably only be able to work part-time.”
Staff members have been allowed flexible schedules to balance schooling and childcare at home with their responsibilities at the museum. Some job descriptions were renegotiated to allow staff to work fewer hours. For some staff, especially those with young children and infants, flexible scheduling provided significant peace of mind and completely removed the need for external childcare.
DD @ CDM has had more than 600 total registrations since launching in the fall of 2020. But with the vaccine and hopes of returning to a normal visitorship, the museum will lack the physical space to continue this program. And more staff will be needed back onsite to resume full operations.
So, does all of the work we’ve done to create a more flexible, supportive work environment go out the window? Or has COVID taught us that when there’s a will there actually is a way?
CDM’s future looks bright. In the spring of 2021, the museum’s $10M capital campaign, Ignite Discovery, will come to an end. We will begin comprehensive renovations of the entire facility in the summer. As a part of that overhaul, in February, administrative offices will move permanently to a building across the street from the museum. An entire office will be available for parents to utilize when they bring their young children or babies to work. Children of staff are once again allowed in the museum whether they are enrolled in a program or not.
CDM’s baby and child at work policies currently work only for administrative staff; making this equitable for all staff is difficult. In a perfect world, CDM would house onsite, free childcare for its employees. But the museum lacks the physical space and finances to bring this to fruition in the foreseeable future.
Flexible work works. With sufficient infrastructure, CDM continues to offer this option to its employees. A fully-remote administrative staff is not feasible today. However, learning from the flexible work models required by the pandemic, we can take steps toward a better balance.
Kyrstin Hill is the marketing and communications manager at the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.