Florida State University Child Care Policy Draws Backlash

Florida State University appears to be walking back an announcement that suggested it would not allow employees to care for children while working from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We want to be clear — our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children,” the university said in an email to staff members and in an announcement posted on its website on Thursday.

That message followed a barrage of questions and criticism that started last week, when the university, in Tallahassee, Fla., emailed its staff to say it would “no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely” as of Aug. 7.

The move was an attempt to reinstate a policy that had existed before the outbreak. But the idea that employees might suddenly be required to make other arrangements for their children even as they continued to work from home led to an immediate backlash.

“Initial responses over the weekend were of despair, shock and feeling disempowered,” said one professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because discussions with the administration were continuing.

“We’ve all been doing our jobs and performing our caregiving roles,” the professor said. “And it’s been really hard, but everybody has been pulling their weight, and that could have just carried on.”

The university’s announcement on June 26 attracted attention on social media and from news outlets over the weekend, turning one institution’s internal debate over its work-from-home policies into an example of the conflicts that can arise as schools, businesses and caregivers across the United States grapple with how to return to a sense of normalcy amid a pandemic. Those conflicts have been amplified in recent weeks in Florida, where the number of known infections has surged.

There have been more than 169,000 cases of coronavirus in Florida, according to a New York Times database. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,600 people had died. Over all, the state’s Covid-19 cases were up fivefold in the last two weeks.

The university shared the latest memo but otherwise declined to comment on Thursday.

In response to the objections that surfaced over the weekend, the university tried to clarify its email in a memo that was posted online Monday. That memo suggested that faculty members would not be affected by the change — and it elicited another backlash because it seemed to suggest that the policy would hurt lower-paid workers more. That memo was later taken down.

In its latest email on Thursday, the university sought to clarify the policy once again.

“We are requesting that employees coordinate with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to work obligations,” it said. “This may be different for each employee based on the specifics of their situation.”

The school said it regretted that its initial communication “caused any unnecessary worry and concern or oversimplified a very nuanced issue.”

Matthew Lata, the F.S.U. chapter president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing faculty members there, was among those who criticized the university after its initial email announcing the policy change last week. In an interview on Thursday, he said the issue seemed to have been resolved.

“I’m glad that the university has taken a step back and looked at this situation and realized that the old normal cannot be the new normal,” he said.

It is not clear when schools and day care centers in the district that includes Tallahassee, Leon County Schools, will reopen. In a letter, the superintendent said he would ask the school board to make Aug. 19 the first day of classes for students. The superintendent also said he would be open to discussing the idea of delaying the start date until after Labor Day.

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