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'So humiliated': College student told she couldn't breastfeed during Zoom class

Marcella Mares says she felt surprised and ashamed when her professor wouldn't let her turn off her camera and feed her daughter.
/ Source: TODAY

Taking college courses online made it easier for Marcella Mares to care for her baby, Olivia. Mares, 23, liked that she could listen to the lecture, take notes and breastfeed Olivia from the privacy of her own home.

This semester, though, a professor told the students they needed to keep their cameras and microphones on during nearly four consecutive hours of math instruction. Mares emailed him to explain she would need to turn her camera off when Olivia, almost 1, needed to breastfeed. She couldn’t believe how he responded.

“He said, ‘You should not be doing that during class. Just do that on your own time or do it after class,’” Mares, a student at Fresno City College in California, told TODAY Parents. “For him to say something like that — it just got me really upset.”

Marcella Mares with her baby girl, Olivia
When Marcella Mares asked her professor if she could turn off her camera during online classes so she could breastfeed her daughter, he said no. Then Mares learned that the Title IX federal civil rights law allows her to do so.Courtesy Marcella Mares

While she understood that the professor was asking students to turn on their cameras on so he could see whether they were participating in class, she didn’t understand why she couldn’t turn hers off as needed to feed her daughter. She was still reeling from his email when she started the online class with that professor — who then made an announcement to the entire class.

“During the Zoom meeting he said, ‘I had a really weird email from a student stating that she needed to do inappropriate things during class time,’” Mares recalled. “(He said), ‘You need to be creative with your children and accommodate them so you can pay attention to my lectures.’”

Mares was furious. She replied to him right after class.

“I emailed him and asked him about the school's rules and his rules against breastfeeding,” she said. “He emailed back right away and said that there were no rules, that he's just following the syllabus guidelines. ...

“I was feeling so humiliated at the time and so embarrassed — like, ‘Oh my God, did I do something wrong?’ My husband actually said, ‘You should contact the school about it.’”

Abraham and Marcella Mares with their daughter, Olivia
Marcella Mares is pictured with her husband, Abraham Mares, and their baby, Olivia. She said she shared her experience to help other moms understand that there are laws protecting breastfeeding women. Courtesy Marcella Mares

It didn't take long for her husband, her cousin and a friend to figure out that Mares should contact the school’s Title IX coordinator for support around breastfeeding at school.

“I didn't know that a Title IX coordinator existed for each school,” Mares said.

Title IX protects student mothers of all ages

Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, director of education and equity and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., said that while most people associate Title IX with sports, the federal civil rights law also offers protection for pregnant and breastfeeding women in any school that receives federal funding.

“Protections are given to students who are pumping or breastfeeding, as well as students who are pregnant. Basically, Title IX was passed to prevent discrimination in school” on the basis of sex, Onyeka-Crawford told TODAY Parents. “Professors and teachers need to allow you to take time to pump or breastfeed.”

Title IX also protects student moms who need time off for prenatal visits, accommodations for bed rest, and make-up time so they don’t fall behind.

“These are really basic things, but unfortunately not a lot of people know about them,” Onyeka-Crawford said.

Mares shared her professor’s email with her school’s Title IX coordinator, who sent the information to the professor and explained that the law allows moms to breasfeed when needed.

“He ended up apologizing,” Mares said. “He said, ‘I apologize for my remarks. ... You may now breastfeed your baby when you need to and you may turn off your camera and microphone when you need to.’”

Mom Marcella Mares breastfeeds her daughter while doing schoolwork.
Marcella Mares said she felt ashamed when her professor described breastfeeding during class as "inappropriate."Courtesy Marcella Mares

The professor did not respond to TODAY Parents' request for an interview. A spokesperson from Fresno City College said the school cannot provide “information about a specific student or employee,” but shared a statement:

"We did have a student who contacted our Title IX coordinator to complain that she was told not to breastfeed during her online class. The instructor asked the class to keep their cameras and microphones on to get the class to have better participation in the class. She wanted to turn off her camera to breastfeed and the instructor said no …

"Apparently, the instructor was not aware of the law pertaining to breastfeeding and now understands that his directive was not correct. He did contact her again and they agreed that she could turn off her camera."

Mares said she hopes her story raises awareness so others understand that moms in school can breastfeed or pump when needed.

“People with children want to better their lives with going to school,” she said.

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