Parents push back against college policy limiting children on campus

·6 min read

CHICAGO — When Columbia College Chicago issued its new policy for visitors this fall, many knew it would look different from previous years.

But faculty members and staff were surprised at one excluded group: children.

The college recently instituted rules limiting children on campus. The policy, which limits when and whether children can accompany parents to campus, prompted pushback and a rally last week by upset parents.

As offices figure out how people return to workplaces, many are making changes on what and who is allowed. Companies have shifted their return-to-work policies as the delta variant of COVID-19 complicated the pandemic recovery; many employers worked through whether to mandate vaccines or keep pandemic measures like masks.

Most workplaces do not involve children, but professors sometimes bring kids to campus to attend events or swinging by an office or having them sit in the back of a classroom during unexpected situations like a teachers strike at a child’s school.

Columbia’s policy, which was formed as the university considered COVID-19 safety and bringing people back to campus, was announced in September. Within the visitor policy, children are allowed to accompany adults only for things like an exhibition, performance, tour or other event open to the public. Otherwise, children are allowed on campus only “in the event of an emergency or unavoidable circumstance with prior approval.”

Jennifer Sadler, a professor in the business and entrepreneurship department, said the September email with the new policy created a flurry of concerned emails and text threads among faculty members who are parents.

“A lot of people were upset,” she said.

According to a statement from the institution provided by Lambrini Lukidis, an associate vice president of strategic communications and external relations, the addition to the visitor policy was prompted by safety measures.

“We believe COVID safety measures will be with us for the foreseeable future,” according to the statement.

Faculty members expressed concern that the policy might remain indefinitely; the college noted it is not ready to commit to a post-pandemic visitor policy. When the Columbia Chronicle first reported on the policy, the Office of the Provost said the policy would be revisited. The college convened a group of faculty, staff and students to discuss the issue and formulate recommendations; as of now, this is the policy for the fall semester.

The policy upends an acceptance of people at times bringing children to campus, Sadler said, and also appears tone deaf toward challenges for parents, from the cost of child care to unexpected moments that crop up in parenting to issues facing single parents like herself.

“When you’re a single parent and your child is a person of color, you really have to navigate some different circumstances of who your child is with,” Sadler said. “It just has so many different layers.”

She tries to keep her daughter with her, she said. Before COVID-19, her daughter sold Girl Scout cookies on campus. On rare occasions she would come to class, wearing headphones and watching shows.

With the new policy, Sadler misses meetings scheduled around or after 3 p.m., when children are getting out of school, that she would have otherwise attended. She is unsure how things like that may affect her tenure. “There are just things that I have to say no to,” she said.

For her students, she wonders about single parents who might need to print things at the library or come to campus with a child in tow.

“It makes it really inequitable,” she said.

Christopher Shaw, an associate professor of mathematics, called the policy draconian.

His children, 6 and 9, have sat in the back of a classroom and watched Netflix with headphones or colored, for example, on a day when they had no school. It’s not his preference, he noted, especially after juggling working and parenting during the pandemic.

Students said hello to his kids, he said, and he thinks it helped humanize him.

”One of the things that we’ve been talking about a lot during COVID has been recognizing, because so many of our students are struggling with other life issues that normally wouldn’t be brought into a classroom, this idea of seeing each other as full human beings,” he said. “I think seeing each other as human beings is part of the experience of being a faculty member.”

On Wednesday, Jackie Spinner, an associate professor of journalism who sometimes writes about the media, including the Tribune, was bringing her toddler to see an exhibit of Pete Souza photos of President Barack Obama, allowed as a campus event open to the public. But the mom of three would not be able to, for example, take the boy to her office.

If the policy is rooted in COVID-19 concerns, she understands that, she said, and isn’t “rushing to bring my kid to campus” during a pandemic. But, she added, “If I want to run up to my office on a Saturday and grab a book, I don’t want to have to find a babysitter.”

As of now, the visitors policy notes exceptions might apply because of an emergency, and granted visits for no more than an hour. Situations can never include bringing a child to class. Faculty members must make a request to the chair, who then forwards the request to the senior associate provost. Other employees make a request through their supervisors, who forward to their supervisors. Students request approval from the dean.

Sadler said this protocol does not reflect the roles individuals play within a family; just because someone is not a parent does not mean they are not responsible for another child in their family. She wants students to feel accommodated and able to be parents and students; this does not seem to send a message of flexibility to faculty or parents.

University policies in Chicago differ. At Northwestern University, the visitor policy says that family members of a Northwestern student or faculty or staff member might qualify as a visitor. And Roosevelt University’s visitor policy says children under 12 are “not recommended” but permitted if they have a documented negative COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours and are accompanied by a vaccinated adult.

“I’m not looking for Columbia to provide me with child care,” Spinner said. “I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve brought my kids to campus.” For example, she brought her kids during the CPS teachers strike, and they sat in the back of the classroom. She checked with her students and asked them to message her privately if they had an issue with this. She also includes a line in her syllabus about accommodating parents.

“This isn’t just about me advocating for myself, but also advocating for my students,” she said.

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