When the University of Maryland School of Law at Baltimore resumed teaching online in the fall of 2020, along with many other American colleges, Courtney A. Bergan gained an important insight. It was the first time in their academic careers that they experienced meaningful engagement.
Bergan, a law student who uses these/those pronouns, is visually impaired and a service dog. But with Zoom, others won’t know they’ve been banned. They noticed a shift in how people treated them in the online class.
“It made me realize how much prejudice I experienced based on people’s perceptions of my disability and not me,” Bergan said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being disabled and it’s a very important part of my identity. But it was really shocking to me how different people treated me.
A year later, in 2021, the college returned to in-person learning. When they asked for an accommodation, Bergan was told to watch the class recordings without the opportunity to participate. They said they received pushback from some professors and attended classes in person for the fall 2021 semester. Then Bergan got sick and asked to return to distance learning again for the spring semester.
But the law school again denied Bergan’s request to take his classes remotely, they said. They fell down a rabbit hole of back and forth administration. When Disability Services couldn’t help, they met with the Associate Dean, then the Dean of Academic Affairs, and on and on. Bergan said they finished the semester using these remote recordings without participation. Chronicle called and emailed the law school for comment, but did not receive a statement in time for publication.
“I’ve certainly spent a lot more time and energy advocating for myself and access to education than I did in any of my classes last year,” Bergan said.
Bergan’s experience is not unique. Students with disabilities at colleges across the country are lamenting the loss of Covid-era hybrid learning and safety measures like masking that created a level of accessibility that some students with disabilities have sought for years. But over the past year, many colleges have struggled to get “back to normal”, must-have masks on the shelves, and opportunities for testing and virtual learning. Some colleges are even rolling back vaccination powers.
Bergan is the lead organizer of the group Covid Safe Campus, which is campaigning for a return to full Covid protection policies. The organization, made up of disabled activists and academics, was released a summary of selected campuses’ Covid policies this fall on Thursday. The Tracker covers the top 50 universities US News and World Report as well as its top 25 schools of public health. Eiryn A. Griest Schwartzman, one of the group’s founders and executive director, called the results alarming.
According to the tracker, only eight of the top 50 universities require masks in the classroom or elsewhere on campus. Just as many, eight in 50, have testing requirements, though mostly only unvaccinated or unboosted. And less than half of universities have active Covid dashboards that show the current state of infection on campus.
Griest Schwartzman, who uses they/them pronouns, said they can’t reliably include in the tracker access to hybrid or virtual learning options, which are now often offered on a case-by-case basis on many campuses, although Covid Safe Campus continues to track it internally.
The lack of testing requirements means that even active Covid dashboards are less useful in determining the level of transmission on campuses, Griest Schwartzman said, providing a “false sense of security.” But even a less accurate dashboard is better than no dashboard at all, they said.
According to the observer, schools of public health have largely abandoned strict precautions. Only six of the top 25 consistently require masking anywhere on campus.
“It’s really symptomatic of the rest of the problems in our nation’s schools,” Griest Schwartzman said. “Leading schools of public health fail to adopt even the simplest and most proven precautions that are simple and effective.”
Building a movement
Griest Schwartzman said they were unable to attend the University of Maryland-Baltimore County graduation ceremony held indoors during the Omicron surge in December 2021 because its Covid protection was too weak, even after the university made some changes to increase safety. for example by encouraging. masks. University spokeswoman Dinah Winnick wrote in an emailed statement that the campus prioritizes “student access and safety” and that for the December 2021 ceremony, the commencement team met with students to create individualized safety plans and offer virtual opportunities. Griest Schwartzman said the facility’s safety measures were not sufficient to allow them to attend the mass indoor gathering, and they were not included in the virtual ceremony.
The experience of going back and forth with the administration helped them find a Covid Safe Campus.
“A lot of people on our team are chronically ill, and that’s one of our motivations to make sure we’re all protected as high-risk people,” Griest Schwartzman said. “Clearly, individual advocacy is not enough. We need a movement that builds people power around itself so that schools can’t just dismiss individual students.
The group is calling for the reinstatement of measures such as campus-wide mask mandates and required weekly testing. But only one university in the tracking data falls into that category: the California Institute of Technology, which still requires masking in all indoor spaces and requires twice-weekly supervision.
“There is still time for universities to take the lead in creating policies or restoring policies that promote equity inclusion by making students safer and providing hybrid access,” said Griest Schwartzman.
But the push for a return to normalcy is almost universal across the country, a move that reflects instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which dropped social distancing recommendations in August and further eased quarantine guidelines.
Griest Schwartzman urged people to help if administrators don’t. “While we’re advocating for betterment across the board, it’s really important that individuals, departments and classrooms — any group of people you can get — commit to taking care of each other, at least in disguise,” they said.
Some professors have taken their classroom masking rules a step beyond what colleges require, including setting stricter rules at work. syllabuses. Meanwhile, some colleges have taken action against professors or programs that require stronger Covid protections. For example, Northwestern University announced that programs and departments are prohibited from requiring testing from incoming students.
Bergan also noted that for many people with disabilities, a degree is the only way to find work, especially work that can be done remotely.
“As a disabled student, I hear a lot about how disabled people don’t work or whatever. But many of us need higher education to have meaningful access to the job market,” Bergan said. “And if people want us to have job opportunities, then you have to give us inclusive education opportunities.”
Bergan finished the spring semester using only the recordings, which were on a timer and often cut off before the end of class. They had to supplement their learning with YouTube videos, podcasts and whatever else they could get their hands on just to understand the basic material, a situation they found “absurd”.
“Can you tell me,” Bergan asked, “how is that fair?”