Colleges Must Accommodate Students Who Are Breastfeeding—Even in Zoom Classes

There are multiple laws to protect the rights of pregnant and parenting students—but they are confusing to sort out. Yet, as educators learn to navigate new learning environments, understanding these laws, and how they apply to remote learning during a global pandemic, is critical.

Colleges Must Accommodate Students Who Are Breastfeeding—Even in Zoom Classes
Marcella Mares, a California college student, was told by her professor she could not breastfeed her baby during an online class. (Marcella Mares/ Facebook)

This month, CNN published a story about a Fresno City College student, Marcella Mares, who filed a complaint against an instructor who told her that it was inappropriate to breastfeed her 10-month-old during Zoom classes—even with her camera turned off. Furthermore, the professor took it upon himself to announce in class that a student had made a “weird” request to do “inappropriate” things during class.

These comments and actions serve as a prime example of micro-aggressions that student parents experience in college classrooms every day. It is also a violation of the law.

Wisely, Mares took the issue to her college’s Title IX coordinator, who directed the instructor to correct his error and apologize to the student. 

“I am sorry for the inconvenience in regard to your intention of breastfeeding your baby,” the instructor’s Sept. 26 email read. “From now on, you have the right to breastfeed your baby at any given time during class, which includes doing group worksheet [sic], listening to the lecture, and taking the quiz or exam. You may turn off your camera at any given time as needed.” 

There are actually multiple laws that protect the rights of pregnant, nursing and parenting students in the classroom—but they are admittedly confusing to sort out.

However, as educators learn to navigate new learning environments in which the boundaries between home and school are more blurred than ever before, understanding these laws, and how they apply to remote learning during a global pandemic, is critical both for purposes of compliance with the requirements of the law, and most importantly, for fostering and promoting equity in higher education.

Title IX Protections

The major federal law involved in this case is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which says:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from, denied participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has clarified that because pregnancy is a condition specific to a certain sex, being pregnant, or having previously been pregnant (i.e. a parent), is a protected status under Title IX.

Title IX protections are most explicit regarding pregnant and nursing students, requiring that they receive disability accommodations comparable to those received by non-parenting students with short-term disabilities, and that absences and missed work due to pregnancy or nursing must be allowed to be made up without academic penalty—even where the instructor’s or institution’s policy would otherwise not allow excused absences or late work.

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According to the Pregnant Scholar, an advocacy organization based at the University of California at Berkeley, nursing mothers must be provided excused time from class to nurse or pump, and freedom from harassment or discrimination. In Mares’s case, it seems that both of these rights were violated. 

California state law also protects the rights of nursing parents to breastfeed in any public place. In fact, while public breastfeeding is protected under state rather than federal law, these laws exist in all 50 states. A separate state law that went into effect in January 2020, Article 4 66271.5 – 66281.7 of the Equity in Higher Education Act, specifies that: 

Colleges Must Accommodate Students Who Are Breastfeeding—Even in Zoom Classes
California state law protects the rights of nursing parents to breastfeed in any public place. (Chris Alban Hansen / Flickr)

“The California Community Colleges and the California State University shall, and a satellite campus of these systems and the University of California are encouraged to, provide reasonable accommodations on their respective campuses for a lactating student to express breast milk, breast-feed an infant child, or address other needs related to breast-feeding.” 

The list of reasonable accommodations provided in the law includes excused breaks or absence from class to nurse or pump, without academic penalties, and with permission to make up any work missed. In Mares’s case, she didn’t even need to miss class; she just needed permission to turn her camera off.

Accommodating Students Who Are Nursing Mothers Is Best Practice

Regardless of the legal technicalities and requirements for accommodating nursing mothers, it is clearly a best practice for supporting equity in education. Portland State University currently offers 13 lactation rooms across campus, providing an online interactive Google Map of their locations, as well as family-friendly study and break spaces on campus for use by student parents and their children.

PSU’s Resource Center for Students with Children operates, stocks, cleans and maintains the lactation rooms and supplies, also offering additional services including free breast pumps for home use, new baby welcome kits, diapers, wipes, refrigerators and other resources. A lactation and child care support specialist is on staff to provide additional support and ensure that nursing students are aware of both the on- and off-campus resources available to them. College policy also requires that new large construction projects on campus include new lactation and family-friendly spaces. 

Colleges Must Accommodate Students Who Are Breastfeeding—Even in Zoom Classes
(summerbl4ck / Flickr)

But many of these on-campus resources and accommodations are now irrelevant under the new remote learning contexts mandated by the COVID-19 crisis. This leaves students like Mares at the mercy of their instructors—many of whom do not know about the laws and protections for pregnant and parenting students.

These topics should be covered in faculty and staff trainings on Title IX, but unfortunately, they are often not mentioned or glossed over. Title IX statements in syllabi templates should also include information about protections for pregnant and parenting students as a standard of best practice; however, finding institutions that have implemented this policy within syllabi templates is rare. 

As the boundaries between school and family become further blurred for student parents studying and attending class from home, educators must become informed about basic protections.

They must also consider how their teaching and learning strategies can be more inclusive and equitable for students who are parents in ways that reach beyond the baseline requirements of the law. 

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Autumn Green is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research and action institute at Wellesley College. She leads the Higher Education Access for Student Parents research initiative at the Centers.