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The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.

While most students at the University of Michigan and in local public schools have returned to in-person learning, Social Work student Julia Hettich and her five children are continuing to learn from home. Hettich said since her children are all under 12 and cannot be vaccinated, returning to school poses a risk for their safety. 

“We as parents have felt like we’ve had to hold the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic after vaccines started becoming common because everyone else got to go back to normal,” Hettich said.

The Michigan Daily spoke to student parents regarding their experience after the first month of in-person classes. Each student said they had to weigh many factors — like the age and number of their children and their access to family support — when deciding how to proceed this fall. 

General health concerns on campus

Despite the relative return to normal for much of the U-M campus, student parents said they are still feeling the burden of COVID-19 on their lives. Though the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is likely to receive anticipated clearance for children aged 5-11 in the coming months, parents say they are playing the waiting game when it comes to choosing between their education and their children’s health.  

Some parents, like Hettich, are avoiding campus entirely. 

“I can’t be certain that the peer that I’m sitting next to in class didn’t go to a party last weekend,” Hettich said. “We still have these little people who we are responsible for.”

Catherine Hadley, LSA senior and a mother of two, spoke of the anxiety she felt when entering a classroom on the first day of classes.

“I remember walking into my class, and it’s a 200 person lecture hall, and just feeling a wave of anxiety,” Hadley said. “(I was not) able to focus on what was happening because all I could think was, ‘this is not safe.’” 

LSA junior Patrick Gallagher, on the other hand, said he feels comfortable with the precautions taken on campus like mandatory vaccination and indoor masking in keeping himself and his 6-year-old son safe. 

“I’m comfortable with a slightly higher level of risk than many of the parents I’ve spoken to,” Gallagher said. “With me vaccinated, all the adults that are around him vaccinated, there’s a strong enough layer of protection there that I can tolerate that risk.”

Gallagher said though he personally feels safe on campus, the University should tailor precautions to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Gallagher said. “We can’t pretend that we’ve already emerged from this situation until we’ve actually emerged.”

Medical School student Janene Berli said she doesn’t have a choice regarding the return to the clinic in person, just two months after giving birth to her second child. She said she was able to stay home longer than expected because of stored-up vacation days and an online course option. 

“I used all these standard practices to make sure you’re minimizing spread of disease,” Berli said. “But at the end of the day I felt so worried about the fact that I was going somewhere where I could potentially bring this bug home to my babies.”

Frustration scheduling classes

When the University announced classes were to be in-person before the start of the fall term, student parents raced to reorganize their schedule around online learning options and childcare constraints. 

Hettich was able to petition to enroll in exclusively virtual courses. She said that she thinks this accommodation may be due to the empathetic tone she said the School of Social Work takes toward their students. 

“I think everyone’s doing the very best they can at making people feel heard and understood,” Hettich said. “And part of it too is that I’m in the School of Social Work, so everyone is ultra understanding and empathetic and kind and patient.” 

LSA senior Jessica Pelton lives with her immunocompromised 8-year-old daughter and said she anticipated a hybrid of in-person and online classes this fall. After selecting exclusively online courses for the fall, Pelton said she noticed in June that some of her courses had switched to in-person. As a result, she had to rearrange her entire schedule to select all online courses for the second time. 

The announcement of more in-person classes just weeks before classes began blindsided her. 

“I personally just did not expect the whole opening at all,” Pelton said. “(When) they announced everything was in-person, I panicked. I was like, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t just open campus on a whim, that’s not how that works.’”

Hadley agreed with Pelton, saying the University’s decision to open in-person seemed rushed.  

“This semester I feel like there was such an urgency to get back to normal that we just completely forgot about the wider impact,” Hadley said. “We definitely forgot about student parents and people that just have to keep playing it safe. I think that we really are taking a risk with not having more solid policies or permissions.”

Hadley spoke of her disappointment when she realized the flexibility offered in previous terms was not applied to this fall. During the pandemic, the University allowed students to convert all classes to Pass/Fail and implemented a No Record COVID option for those who received under a D. This option was discontinued for the Fall 2021 semester.

“I was really hoping that the University was going to have more in place in terms of maintaining flexibility in the grading structure and in absences,” Hadley said. 

Gallagher said he is lucky that his professors have all offered asynchronous options for courses this semester. However, he said these decisions seem to be made by each individual professor rather than the University as a whole, a sentiment echoed by other students. 

“As I understand it, I have not seen any communication from the University that says professors will be offering, or departments will be offering, an asynchronous option for those who need it,” Gallagher said. “It does make planning very difficult.”

Another scheduling difficulty parents in Ann Arbor are facing is removal of the before- and after-school programming at several public schools, which was decided by the Ann Arbor Public Schools in May. Parents petitioned this decision, and one recently brought a lawsuit against AAPS saying the district was violating the Open Meetings Act. 

This decision left many student parents scrambling to arrange other after-school options, including enrichment programs through the City’s Recreation & Education department, Gallagher said. However, Gallagher pointed out that those programs are not run by licensed childcare providers and therefore cannot be subsidized through the University.

“Well, the enrichment classes are my only option and they’re not a licensed caregiver,” Gallagher said. “So even here when we’re talking about the difference between aftercare and enrichment classes and a licensed provider and a non-licensed provider, we’re splitting hairs.”

Last year, the University extended the child care subsidy to include caregivers who were not licensed, but they have returned to the pre-COVID-19 requirements this year. 

“They suspended that rule last year during COVID,” Gallagher said. “Except COVID hasn’t really ended. It’s still having societal consequences. But they’re officially not accepting unlicensed caregivers.”

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily that the University offers various resources to help students afford childcare. 

“In addition, U-M obtained a contract with Care.com which offers university faculty, staff and students free access to a network of caregivers in their area,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The service includes caregivers for children, including tutors, and more. The monthly membership fee is covered but employees and students will be responsible for the cost of the care they utilize.”

Relying on professors to allow accommodations

LSA junior Sam Toia has been bringing her 7-month-old son to lecture with her. Since her child is breastfeeding, she said that she cannot be separated from him for long periods of time. 

“Things are just hard with the childcare,” Toia said. “He goes (to daycare) while I work there because I can still go into his room and nurse him, but if I have back-to-back classes for three hours I can’t leave him there because he won’t take a bottle.”

Toia said she relies on professors being understanding when it comes to allowing her child to accompany her into the classroom. Despite leaving the room when her infant is babbling or fussy, Sam said a classmate in one class complained to the professor. Now, she is no longer allowed to bring him with her to that course. 

This, in addition to her rushed move into Northwood housing when an apartment suddenly became available in the first week of class, has led her to miss six days of her four-day-a-week course. Toia said she is only allowed six absences before a grade reduction, and only 16 absences are allowed before automatically failing the course. 

“There are just unpredictable things that have happened that meant that I just couldn’t make it,” Toia said. “And we’re, what, four weeks in? And I’ve already reached the max.”

LSA junior Amber Kocina also faced a similar situation. Kocina decided to stay home with her 4-year-old daughter when she woke up with a sore throat last week. Kocina said she missed two days of school waiting for her daughter’s negative COVID-19 test before she could return to daycare.

One of her missed lectures did not have an asynchronous option, and Kocina said she used her two no-penalty absences but was still not able to make up the content she missed in class. 

“’I’m missing information too,” Kocina said. “I’m not skipping class to skip class. I still want to know that information. So that’s where it gets a little frustrating.”

Not knowing what resources are available

Many student parents spoke of feeling bewildered as they tried to advocate for themselves, by themselves. 

Kocina said she arranged for babysitters ahead of her night exams this fall, but was not looking forward to the 40-minute commute after her exams ended at 10 p.m. She said she raised her hand on the first day of class and asked the professor if alternate exam times were available, but was informed that was not an option. 

It was not until she spoke with Pelton, the LSA senior and fellow Michigan Caregivers and Student Parents member, that she was encouraged to explain her situation to her professors and try again. 

“I’m really happy that I have (other student parents) in my corner because they’ve been through this before,” Kocina said. “It’s been my first semester here and I don’t know those things. Especially when I asked and (the professors) just said no.”  

Tiffany Marra, director of Center for the Education of Women+, said she empathizes with the extra struggles that student parents face this fall.

“A lot of the accommodations that were provided while campus was closed are starting to be retracted,” Marra said. “It is complicated for students and staff with children younger than age 12. There are shortages at childcare centers because of lack of workers because of low pay. Title IX protects pregnant students and they can have accommodations. The same rights don’t extend to student parents, unfortunately. Some schools recognize student parents under Title IX (but) we haven’t gotten there at U-M.”

Kocina said she recognizes that her situation is not covered under disability accommodations, but she said she still needs accommodations. 

“There is stuff in the syllabus about if you have a learning disability that they can accommodate (you),” Kocina said. “I had to go out of my way (to request another exam time). There wasn’t anything about my situation. I don’t have a learning disability, but I do need another exam time.”

Broekhuizen confirmed Kocina’s statement, writing in an email to The Daily that students with disabilities are directed to Services for Students with Disabilities to discuss online learning. Outside of SSD, Broekhuizen said students must meet with their professor individually about accommodations.

“If a student would like to pursue options related to remote learning for a particular class, the Dean of Students Office can work with the student to talk about options,” Broekhuizen wrote. “In the end, though, the student would need to discuss options with their faculty members.” 

What are student parents advocating for?

Many student parents said they are advocating for increased awareness of their situation on campus. Kocina said as a student parent, she felt invisible on campus. While professors accommodate her situation, she feels they are surprised by her requests. 

“When I do mention anything about being a student parent, it just seems like they’ve never heard of such a thing before,” Kocina said. “They’re accommodating, but I feel like I am almost a burden.”

Berli said there needs to be guaranteed maternity leave for medical students. In order to spend time with her son after giving birth, she used her vacation time. 

“You have the six weeks total for the second two years (of medical school),” Berli said. “So I saved mine because that’s my maternity leave. I think some faculty advocates are working on creating a medical student maternity leave, because there’s no such thing.”

Marra said she recommends student parents reach out to her or seek resources through CEW+. She also mentioned that the University’s Student Ombuds, Tom Lehker, is a great resource for student parents needing assistance. 

“A student reported back to CEW+ that a faculty member talked through resources for student parents on the first day of class,” Marra said. “We need (all faculty) to demonstrate support for students who don’t fit the traditional mold and break down the hiddenness of student parents.”

Toia said she is working on a policy change for the University to allow student parents to bring their child to class or provide an on-campus childcare option staffed by students. 

“I think that tuition is so expensive here that they can figure out some sort of on-campus daycare,” Toia said. “If we’re not going to allow parents to bring their children, you need to have something else set up that’s going to accommodate them. If you want success, you can’t demand success but then not give them the support they need.”

Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at elissajw@umich.edu.