By Andrew Cohen
When COVID-19 shuttered schools and daycare centers in March, Berkeley Law students with young children were suddenly transformed — into full-time caregivers, homeschool teachers, play partners, and meal providers.
“It was exhausting and stressful,” Sarah Graham ’22 says. “Most working parents we know were in the same boat, treading water and trying to stay on top of things and feeling like we’re not doing any of it well.”
Graham and her spouse split daily childcare so she could attend Zoom classes and study until early afternoon. They also had to brainstorm outings and activities for their son Sasha, who turned two in May, with many area parks and beaches closed and friend interaction off limits.
Adding to the stress: looming 1L final exams.
“I had a lot of missed classes to catch up on during the exam period,” Graham says. “We worked and studied on the same schedule seven days per week, and had endless disruptions during our scheduled work times. I ultimately worried much more about how to be a good parent during the pandemic, including how we would manage if we became ill with COVID-19, than I did about my exams.”
Graham found welcome parent resources from the school as well as support and camaraderie in Berkeley Law’s Student Parents Group, which had meetings with Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of Students Annik Hirshen, and Student Services staff.
“They were all incredibly helpful,” Graham says. “It remains an uncertain time, but it’s great to know that the law school is sensitive to how parenting impacts its students. Even as childcare and school reopens, these options could be shut down at any time and it’s important that staff, students, and faculty can continue to make their needs known to the law school.”
Pallavi Kondapalli ’20 was externing full-time at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an arrangement beneficial for keeping her weekends free for family time and bar exam preparation, when life turned upside down.
Her two sons (8 and 5) got sick in the first week of March with seasonal flu — by which time the fear of COVID-19 had forced Kondapalli to work from home — essentially putting her family in self-isolation two weeks earlier than the rest of California. Her husband, an essential worker at his software company, had to be on site at least four days a week.
“We couldn’t risk jeopardizing his career, as we were dependent on his income for sustenance, more so in anticipation of an economic downturn,” she says. “I had to take over the responsibility of a full-time caregiver to both my kids with the additional burden of keeping up the 40 hours of work per week at my externship to complete the academic requirements.”
Kondapalli worked every alternate night from 9.00pm to 2.00 or 3.00am and tried to attend a few meetings and Zoom lunch talks during the day, but it was still not possible to clock in 40 hours a week. There was also her older son’s homework to be finished and Zoom classes for both kids to help facilitate.
“On one hand, I was so looking forward to the externship as my projects at EFF were very much in the field I want to make my career in,” says Kondapalli, a former patent examiner at the Indian Patent Office. “On the other hand, my kids had nowhere to go, no one to play with, and no one to visit for play dates. If there ever was a time that my family needed me, this was it.”
Flexibility from EFF proved vital, as did services from her on-campus housing at UC Village (enabling her kids to join university-run childhood education and after-school programs that accommodated her schedule). And support from Berkeley Law reaffirmed her decision to enroll there.
“All student parents appreciated the initiative taken by the school in investing time and resources to attend to problems we faced, particularly with respect to schedule accommodations and help with housing,” Kondapalli says. “The Field Placement Office at Berkeley Law school was supportive and worked with me to brainstorm ways to meet the academic requirement. And as co-president of the Student Parent Group I was asked to coordinate a meeting with the deans to sort out any issues that student parents were facing, which was much appreciated.”