Education

Columbia College bans kids from classrooms, limits visits

Employees and students of Columbia College Chicago brought their children to campus Monday to protest a new policy against doing just that.

“With childcare scarce at this time and the cost rising, it’s proving more and more that the college is not a place for parents,” said Jennifer Sadler, an assistant professor of marketing, business and entrepreneurship and Faculty Senate vice president who helped organize the midday rally against the campus child ban.

Sadler, a single parent who sometimes brought her school-age daughter to on-campus meetings before COVID-19, added, “We need approval up a chain for emergency situations, which just isn’t feasible.”

That daughter, now 12, also occasionally came to class and watched videos with headphones on while her mother taught. Students’ children have been known to do the same thing.

No more.

Last month, the college provost’s office published a new policy saying that employees and students can bring a minor to class “under no circumstance.” Students and employees can bring their children elsewhere on campus, but only with prior approval, and for no more than 60 minutes.

The new approval process for hourlong child visits works like this: faculty members must ask their department chairs for permission, and chairs must forward those requests to the senior associate provost. Other employees must ask their immediate supervisor, who must ask the supervising vice president. Students must seek approval from the dean of students.

In all cases, minors can only visit campus with their parent or legal guardian.

It’s (Partly) About Safety

Columbia College requires that all students be vaccinated against COVID-19 and that all unvaccinated employees be tested regularly for the virus. This is a somewhat strict COVID-19 mitigation plan, as far as colleges and universities go, and Columbia says the new policy on child visitors aligns with what it’s already doing to keep the campus safe.

A memo from the provost’s office, sent a day after the policy announcement, says, for instance, “COVID remains a threat, and managing the risk on campus remains paramount. Our visitor policies are just one small aspect of our panoply of precautions.”

Yet the language of the policy confirms that it’s about more than just COVID-19. It also gives no indication that the prohibition on children will be relaxed when all children are eligible for vaccination, or when the pandemic eventually ends.

“Generally, minor children of employees or students are not permitted on campus, however, some exceptions may apply due to an emergency or unavoidable circumstance,” the policy says. This is “especially important given the COVID-19 pandemic” but also “important to avoid disrupting classes, work, and other campus activities.”

Here is the main source of the opposition to the new rule: while the pandemic is the initial rationale, it stands to become permanent. And opponents say that such a prohibition, in the long run, limits parents’, and perhaps especially mothers’, ability to participate in campus activities, including work. The policy also implicitly questions all employees’ professionalism, these opponents say.

United Opposition

“We understand that many precautions are necessary to keep our campus safe during COVID; we believe these precautions can exist within a culture of support of parents and other guardians who work and study at this college,” says a joint statement against the policy published by the executive committees of the Columbia Faculty Union, Faculty Senate, Student Government Association and United Staff of Columbia College union.

The statement asks the college to reverse the policy, saying faculty and staff members and students “stand together ready to engage in a complex and evidence-based conversation about campus policies, during and post-COVID, that acknowledge and support the diverse family contexts of our college community members.”

The college issued its own statement following the protest Monday, saying that the policy was prompted by pandemic safety measures and the need to “be consistent with our vaccination requirements and limits on visitors. Children of employees and students could be brought to campus only in the event of a parenting emergency or are part of a sponsored program or activity.”

The college didn’t answer questions about how long the policy will last but said in the statement that various pandemic-related safety measures “will be with us for the foreseeable future.”

“We are not committing to what post-COVID visitor policy will be at this time,” Columbia said, “however, after feedback from the campus community on this topic, the college is convening a working group to discuss the issue and formulate recommendations.”

Madhurima Chakraborty, associate professor of English and creative writing and president of the Faculty Senate, said that the college needs and deserves an open, honest discussion about these issues.

“I think there’s some kind of fundamental communication gap,” said Chakraborty, who has an 8-year-old son. “I actually don’t know how many of our community members are parents or guardians, but this also says something about the campus culture here. I mean, if I was looking for a job somewhere and I heard that this policy existed — even 15 years from now with no kid living at home — I don’t know that I would want to be part of that.” Students may opt out of attending Columbia for the same reason, she said.

To that point, Chakraborty said some of the protesters at Monday’s rally were campus community members without children.

In any case, Chakraborty said that she and her colleagues are “grateful” the college is taking COVID-19 precautions seriously, because she and her colleagues are taking COVID-19 seriously. No one’s “clamoring to bring their children to campus for no good reason” during the pandemic, as much for their health as anyone else’s, she said.

Jackie Spinner, an associate professor of journalism with three young sons, brought her children with her to the rally Monday. Her two older boys, Rafi, 7, and Samir, 9, who is autistic, carried signs with slogans they thought up: “I won’t break anything” and “I promise to be quiet.”

Spinner said she’s had her children on campus fewer than 10 times in the nine years she’s been at Columbia, including twice during a local teachers’ strike in 2019. “They sat in the back of the room drawing or playing on their iPads,” she said of those occasions. “Most of the time I’ve had them with me to grab something from my office on the weekend.” (She taught a class online from her car just after the rally Monday, as her sons were off school for the federal holiday but could not enter campus buildings due to the new policy; her department chair offered to bring them all snacks.)

Spinner also has a line in her syllabus welcoming students with children, or children for whom they’re responsible, to class in case of a childcare emergency. “I want them to know their presence is important, and I realize the barrier to affordable childcare,” she said.

Over all, Spinner said her problem with this policy is that it “suggests there is a problem where there isn’t one.”

Colleges and universities aren’t any other business, she said, “and my college, in particular, is trying to be a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion. I want to work at a place that recognizes and values me as a parent because my experience as a mother, and particularly as a mother of children with disabilities, shapes my scholarship and guides my own advocacy within the college.”

If Columbia wants to be “like everyone else,” she said, “if they want to corporatize our workplace, then they need to stop pretending they are on the forefront of anything that seeks to dismantle the systematic biases that exist within ours or other workplaces.”

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