For many years, faculty and staff at Murray State University (MSU) have struggled with the need for childcare during the first week of April, traditionally the spring break week of the local school districts. MSU’s spring break is during the third week of March, and this schedule conflict leaves parents struggling to cover their childcare needs. No amount of pleading on behalf of Staff Congress, Faculty Senate, or the ADVANCE team has swayed the university or the local school districts from sticking to this timing.
In 2022, for the first time, the ADVANCE team decided to run a spring break camp and offered childcare to employees with children in grades K–6. The camp consisted of enrichment activities led by faculty from disciplines such as engineering, biology, music, accounting, math, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, theater, and agriculture. These faculty members received compensation from MSU’s ADVANCE grant funds (NSF #1935939). Games, snacks, and play time supplemented the faculty-led sessions. The camp divided children into two groups by grade (K–2 and 3–6). Just a small number of children enrolled, largely due to cost factors. The spring break camp proved to be incredibly popular with parents and children.
Our ADVANCE team offered a second session in 2023, and a follow-up survey showed that nearly all parents who participated, 96%, viewed the camp as a significant benefit, with the remaining 4% perceiving it as a moderate benefit. While parents also perceived the camp as beneficial in 2022, their approval level increased in 2023. When asked how the camp benefited their work-life balance, parents commented on the positive impacts for their children, as well as on the direct benefits that they received as faculty and staff. Parent responses included such language as “an enriching environment” that “helps prepare my child for their future…opens their minds to new interests, enhances interpersonal communication, introduces them to potential future educational and career interests.” These benefits made many parents feel even better about sending their children to the camp. One parent described it as more than just childcare: “Having a fun, stimulating, safe place for my child to go during spring break was a HUGE benefit to my mental well-being and my ability to focus at work. I didn’t have to spend time setting up childcare. I didn’t have to worry that she was safe. I can’t emphasize enough how much this camp reduced my stress during MISD spring break and allowed me to focus at work. Also, my daughter had a great time at camp!”
There were a few challenges. Staffing proved to be the biggest problem. Recruiting student workers to help run the camp proved to be very difficult because MSU students were still in class and were not available for long periods of the day. While faculty were able to work around the fact that the 2022 camp ran from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m., staff found this challenging. In 2023, the camp ran from 7:30 a.m. through 5 p.m., and enrollment doubled. We also were able to get sponsorship from each of the academic colleges, which allowed us to offer this childcare for $50 for the week. In addition, we were able to convince certain colleges and departments to reassign their student workers to our camp for the week, which led to a reduction in staffing problems. We hope, in the future, to work with the College of Education and Human Services to provide practicum hours to some of their students through this camp.
The ADVANCE team at MSU provided a much-needed benefit through our spring break camp in 2022 and 2023. The success of the camp highlights the importance of providing childcare options for working parents and the positive impacts it can have on both the parents and their children. As the childcare sector continues to struggle with hiring and retaining staff, it is important for higher education employers to consider offering childcare options to their employees, particularly at times where schedule conflicts cause additional need.
Maeve Lewis McCarthy is an Assistant Dean at Murray State University where she directs the MSU ADVANCE program. Originally from Ireland, she is a mathematician and has been involved in advocacy for women since graduate school.
Reigh Kemp is the former Program Coordinator for the MSU ADVANCE program at Murray State University. She ran the spring break camp in 2022 and 2023.