Like the rest of us in 2020, student-parents at Seattle Central are faced with an unprecedented transition into virtual learning. However, so are their children. Due to Covid-19, student-parents now need to juggle homeschooling their children while attending school themselves, inflicting an overwhelming workload on an already taxed population.
As of October 9th there are 802 student-parents at Seattle Central, 63% of whom identify as female, and 71% identify as a minority. Before COVID-19, student-parents had 50% less available time for school than their peers. Additionally, after work, housework, and childcare, student-parents with preschool-aged children have roughly 10 hours of time per day left to eat, sleep, and do homework, whereas non-parent students have an average of 21 hours; a stark difference. Subsequently, student-parents are 10 times less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within five years than non-parent students. In short, parent-students were already on a steep uphill climb well before COVID-19.
Some student-parents have expressed concern that faculty at Seattle Central can be unnecessarily rigid with the unpredictable demands of parenting, and that this inflexible treatment by teachers is a detriment to their education. Becca Leslie, a mother of two currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree, said that when her one-year-old daughter began to have seizures she asked her instructor to be allowed to accompany her daughter, with impunity, to her medical testing but the instructor insisted that any absence would deduct points from her grade.
“I essentially had to choose my academics [instead of] my child who was sitting in a children’s hospital. I’ve had to do that so many times because the instructors are not flexible,” Leslie said.
When Leslie was asked what she would want the school to do to make her time as a student-parent easier, she replied simply, “clear communication and flexibility.” Similarly, Anthonese Gavin, also a mother of two pursuing her bachelor’s degree, expressed a desire for Seattle Central to mandate instructors to be more understanding with students during quarantine.
During a student leadership Q&A with Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, President at Seattle Central College, Leslie asked what the college was planning to do to support student-parents who have inflexible teachers. Dr. Edwards Lange said, “At the end of the day I, as administration, do not have the power to force [teachers] to change their grading practices or how they respond to requests for leniency.” Dr. Edwards Lange attributes this lack of power to academic freedom.
Academic freedom is a set of principles introduced by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and Association of American Colleges and Universities in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. It states that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results” and “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.”
These widely adopted principles were established to allow professors to explore ideas openly with their students and in their research. Historically, they have formed a protective bubble wherein classrooms can participate in free and thoughtful discourse with impunity. It also means that teachers have the freedom to teach as they believe best suits the material, including whether or not they are lenient with student-parents. It has been widely contested since its inception with varying results.
Bliss Holloway, Coordinator and teacher of the Visual Media program at Seattle Central Creative Academy (SCCA) said, “I do feel like it’s really important for the academic freedom thing to be maintained even through this period. We’re [SCCA] overseen by Arts, Humanities and Social sciences, which means that our dean is a history teacher … We’re lumped in with general pre-req sort of classes even though we’re actually a specialized program because we’re pro-tech (professional technology). When I talk to anybody in the administration or anybody who’s my dean, they know nothing about our job.”
Holloway also said that certain class curriculum should not be abridged. “I wouldn’t necessarily want a nurse who has not been able to attend the classes and lectures to be certified at the same level as a nurse who has, and we’re talking about somebody who might have to be taking care of somebody in a state where their life could be in danger.”
There are ways that some teachers can provide leniency without sacrificing the quality of education.
Chris Conley, the Faculty Senate President of the faculty union branch at Seattle Central, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Seattle Local 1789, and an ESL teacher, says that he has adjusted his teaching methods during COVID-19. Conley said “I’ve almost removed all deadlines for my assignments so that students can finish them when they have time.” Additionally, Conley records his classes and posts them to Canvas for students who can’t make it to his live classes. However, some aspects of programs can not be amended even if the teacher wanted to because of outside influences, said Conley. Maritime and nursing programs, for example, often have strict requirements from an outside body.
Conley said he has heard of teachers being inflexible. “It does remind me that teachers need to be evaluated. The deans are required by our contracts to evaluate all the faculty, and if something isn’t going right that should be noted in that evaluation. I know that the deans don’t always evaluate faculty.”
Dr. Edwards Lange said, “one of the things that the AFT could do is they can issue a statement to their members encouraging them to be flexible and to ask questions, to put something on their syllabus about support for student-parents.” Dr. Edwards Lange said the administration has sent out requests for leniency during COVID-19 to teachers. Conley said the AFT has not done so.
Conley also mentioned that part-time faculty are not paid to attend informative meetings, such as ones about COVID-19, but that full-time faculty are. Being paid to attend meetings would increase attendance and the potential for part-time faculty to be well-informed of COVID-19 strategies. “I think it’s a glitch between the faculty and administration where we want the expertise and input of the part-time faculty but they need to be paid for it.”
Another potential solution being considered by administration is replacing a letter grade with a satisfactory/not satisfactory option, which would give students breathing room and alleviate stress. Some schools have already implemented this option during COVID-19, including Duke University, a prestigious research university in North Carolina. However, there are some potential pitfalls to this system. Having a pass/no pass on a transcript could limit the type and amount of financial aid a student qualifies for. Additionally, some institutions do not look favorably on transcripts with a pass/no pass grade.
When Holloway was asked if SCCA would ever consider offering a part-time version of one of their programs, Holloway said there wasn’t a demand yet. “It might be something that could be considered in the future but we aren’t there yet.”
In the event of a conflict between a teacher and a student, Conley said that a student should try and talk to the teacher first. “If you’re not satisfied, go to the dean, and see what they can do about it. Then you can file a formal complaint and then it starts a process.” Molly E. Mitchell, Director of Student Support, says that the majority of complaints are resolved quickly within the quarter.
Mitchell also recommends that students seek help from Student Support if they “need help navigating a conversation with faculty or dean if they’re finding that there’s a challenge.” Mitchell said that they can provide guidance and coaching but that they do not become directly involved.
The Bigger Picture
Mitchell thinks we should view the situation holistically. “We have a number of students on campus with all kinds of different barriers and sometimes those intersect and I don’t think one is more important than the other. They all need to be met where they’re at.”
“We have students that are studying in a tent, or trying to move from shelter to shelter … there are people sitting in their car outside of a McDonald’s trying to get on the internet,” said Mitchell.
“We tend to serve a large segment of students who are already vulnerable, and already disproportionately negatively impacted by economic circumstances. So, I’m concerned about what we can do to provide a safety net, and we’re not there,” said Dr. Edwards Lange.
Both Mitchell and Conley stressed that teachers are also parents. “Sometimes teachers have taken off the quarter because they can’t do both,” said Conley. Indeed, during both of my interviews with Mitchell and Holloway their children could be seen or heard, a poignant reminder that all families have had to adjust during the pandemic.
Yet, at the end of the day, student-parents are still struggling and at a very high risk of falling through the cracks. Gavin said that she is in school to give her children a better life. She feels that Seattle Central is stretching her way beyond her limits and “pushing [her] to leave.”
Seattle Central espouses accessibility, equity, and inclusion yet it is failing to live up to its own ethos. However, SCCC cannot separate itself from the system, nor the American landscape at large. Despite valiant efforts from many, marginalized communities will continue to struggle during this time.
“Many of our student-parents have some of our higher GPAs,” said Mitchell. Student-parents are working hard against astonishing odds to better their lives and the lives of their families. So, teachers of Seattle Central, are you doing all that can be done to help student-parents succeed? Is there something you could do differently to make their rough road a little easier to walk?