COVID-19 Challenges in College Reopening Plans for Students with Disabilities

Despite the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic, some colleges and universities are planning to hold in-person classes and activities this fall. Meanwhile, new data shows that a growing number are reconsidering, and instead shifting towards an entirely virtual learning environment. Both in-person and virtual arrangements can pose challenges for students with disabilities during a pandemic, and it’s vital that colleges and universities understand the ways in which they must accommodate the needs of disabled students during a disaster. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued analyses on the risk level of these reopenings, providing colleges and universities with several sample scenarios that affect the likelihood of spreading COVID-19. Lowest in risk are settings where students and faculty interact virtually, and residence halls are closed. Classified under “more risk” are arrangements where students are in socially-distanced classes and events, and residence halls are open at a lower capacity. Finally, situations presenting the highest risk are those where full-sized classes are held without social distancing, and residence halls are open at full capacity.

Despite the clear risks, some colleges and universities are planning to open in-person or with a hybrid model. Notably, in-person learning arrangements during a pandemic put immunocompromised students and faculty at increased risk. Many reopening plans assume that students and some staff will be less at-risk due to their younger age, but this assumption ignores the fact that 16.6% of Americans between the ages of 18-44 have some sort of disability. Similarly, the results of a recent study from the University of California San Francisco indicate that 1 in 3 young adults may face severe symptoms of COVID-19. 

In-person and hybrid plans to reopen colleges and universities also present an equity issue, where disabled students and staff will feel pressured to put themselves at risk, or else jeopardize the quality of their education or the stability of their jobs. It also foments social isolation and mental health implications, where disabled students will have to choose between the state of their physical health and their connection with on-campus communities.

Even in-person approaches that provide remote attendance accommodations to people deemed “high-risk” are only a partial fix. Many at-risk individuals may not fit the categories of high-risk laid out by the CDC, which are based on emergent epidemiological data and cannot predict the risk of debilitation or death from COVID-19 for all individuals. Also notable is the fact that CDC criteria does not consider the availability of ventilators, hospital beds, and medications in different geographic locations. Additionally, the CDC’s high-risk categories fail to align with individuals protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), meaning that ADA protections and accommodations will be unavailable to many at-risk people. Even those who fit the ADA definition would have to submit medical documentation to colleges and universities to “prove” their high-risk status, which is especially difficult in a pandemic environment and necessitates access to healthcare. Additionally, the ADA does not provide protection for people concerned about putting immunocompromised family members or loved ones in danger. 

However, even transitioning to a fully virtual learning arrangement presents challenges for students with disabilities. Notably, people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty and lack access to safe housing, meaning that their home environment may not be conducive to learning and working. Despite the fact that some universities that have moved online are offering limited on-campus housing for students in need, disability-related circumstances are rarely considered. For example, at Georgetown University, where I now lead the Disability Alliance, negotiations with administrators have been ongoing since April, urging them to house at-risk disabled students.

Additionally, online classes present newfound issues with adapting classroom accommodations that were originally built for an in-person environment. Georgetown students have reported inconsistent and insufficient accommodations since the University moved online. With 1 in 8 of the students registered to receive academic accommodations, this affects about 1,500 members of the student body. These factors mean that students with disabilities may not have equal access to higher education, and may be experiencing violations of their civil rights, in addition to other pandemic-related struggles. 

As colleges and universities refine their plans for the upcoming fall semester in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they should comply with CDC guidelines and must maintain the civil rights and well being of students and faculty with disabilities. Both in-person and online learning arrangements present diverse challenges which college administrators and leaders must address and monitor as conditions evolve in the coming school year. 

As a student with disabilities myself, I’ll be moving back to my apartment in Washington, D.C. in a few short weeks to attend classes remotely at Georgetown. My family members will be returning to in-person work and school in September, so staying at home in New Jersey would likely leave me more exposed to COVID-19 than my living arrangement at school. Plus, in the years since moving to D.C., my network of doctors, personal services providers, and other supports have shifted there as well. 

These decisions are complex and should be made with a holistic view of COVID-19 risk factors, quality of life issues, and other considerations. But in the end, students must decide where they feel most comfortable and can best maintain their health and well being. Colleges and universities would do well to gain insights by listening to such a sizable and marginalized student demographic when revising and building upon their plans for the fall.

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