Like much of the world, my college was largely unprepared when the pandemic changed everything in March. The scramble to set up remote learning over spring break was chaotic, and no one knew quite what was going to happen. The rest of the academic year was spent treading water and making the best of an unprecedented situation. Many, many things were less than ideal during this time, but that is reasonable given the fluid nature of the emergency. Next year, however, we will expect more. With months to plan, my college and every other will need a reasonable plan that ensures equal access to education, including for students with disabilities. Unfortunately, the early signs aren’t promising.
Only a few colleges and universities have presented final plans for the Fall 2020 semester, though many others have described the options they are considering. Common scenarios include completely remote semesters, shortened on-campus learning (often including a transition to virtual learning after Thanksgiving) and hybrid models that see some students and/or courses functioning remotely and others in person.
None of these scenarios are ideal for everyone, but I am most concerned by colleges that propose allowing young and healthy students to return to campus while encouraging or requiring those in high risk groups (including many disabled students) to remain remote. I worry that this fall disabled students will be provided a separate, and likely inferior, education than their abled peers who have the opportunities provided by in-person access to professors and resources.
Purdue University has one of the most clear plans for a fall semester, which specifically strives to “keep these groups [of the young and healthy and the high-risk] separate.” I am horrified that separating some students from others is the goal, rather than encouraging everyone to practice appropriate social distancing. Purdue also seeks “to protect the more vulnerable members of our community by allowing (or requiring, if necessary) them to work remotely.” While remote work is essential during this pandemic, forcing some students, faculty and staff to work remotely based on their age, health or disability is unacceptable. Purdue’s plan to reopen this fall clearly attempts to make the best of a difficult situation, but it misses the mark of providing fair and equal access for disabled students.
While segregation is the most concerning scenario, there are many other ways the changes colleges will make in response to the pandemic could present additional barriers for disabled students. There is no way to anticipate all of these barriers, but I offer some of the questions my friends and I have been asking as we consider what our fall semesters will look like:
- How will the college support students who rely on lip reading when everyone is wearing masks?
- If dining halls are prepackaged meals only, how will students with dietary restrictions be accommodated?
- If walkways become one-directional, will all of the routes be accessible? How will this impact people who can only walk limited distances?
- If masks are not required for everyone, will mandated mask wearing for classmates and professors of immunocompromised students be an available accommodation?
- If regular testing is part of the college’s plan, will the testing area be accessible? What about waiting areas and the rest of the health center?
I recognize that there is no clear guidance for colleges and universities attempting to make their fall plans accessible for students, faculty and staff with disabilities. No one was prepared for this pandemic, and the federal guidance for these institutions has so far only addressed distance learning in a limited manner, even months into the pandemic. However, I know that providing equal access to disabled people is possible, and it is not optional.
**Update: Since this blog post was written, many colleges and universities have released their plans for the 2020-21 school year. You can find more information about guidance on opening campuses from the Centers for Disease Control here.