4 Ways College Leaders can Support Students with Disabilities as COVID Still Rages

Blog Post
May 31, 2022
"They acted as if they knew more about my [health] condition than me or my doctor. [As a result,] I was forced to teach in person and put myself at significant risk." (Adrian,* a current graduate student at a large, urban research university in the Midwest)

Many of us are fully embracing the transition back into our old, “normal” routines: Less mask-wearing, more group gatherings, and for students and teachers, a nearly complete return to campus. But unfortunately, while this return to normalcy is celebrated by many, students with disabilities may be left dangerously exposed to the lingering risks of the coronavirus. 

For college students with chronic illnesses like Adrian, the disturbing lack of attention from colleges and universities in fostering safe, equitable environments goes directly against the advice of medical professionals. Adrian, who is also a graduate teaching assistant, lamented how they found little compassion and support from the administration at the large, urban research university. Ultimately, in opposition to their doctor’s recommendation, disability resource office staff denied their request to continue teaching online in Spring 2022. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 20 percent of undergraduate and 12 percent graduate students report having a disability. But these figures may not fully capture the absolute number of college students with health-related conditions. Fears of marginalization may lead some students to choose not to self-disclose their disability status. Individuals with disabilities also have diverse needs, ranging from mobility (13.7 percent of adults) to cognition (10.8 percent of adults). Given the diverse needs of college students today, it is imperative that college leaders take actionable steps to ensure these historically minoritized students are not left behind during the next phase of pandemic-related campus management. 

Several adverse social determinants of health – or factors that influence where people live, work, play, and sometimes learn – contribute to barriers that systematically disadvantage specific communities and perpetuate inequality. For example, the COVID pandemic has illustrated that racially minoritized and low-income communities are systematically disadvantaged and more likely to be front-line workers. As a result, these groups have suffered the greatest hospitalization, infection, and mortality rates during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, racially and ethnically minoritized groups reported the highest prevalence of chronic diseases. And as medical experts have asserted, “chronic health conditions still need attention.” For instance, approximately 90 percent of patients hospitalized in March 2020 had at least one underlying condition, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Few medical professionals would disagree that certain demographics, such as individuals with disabilities, face a severe risk of illness from COVID-19. For example, in a peer-reviewed publication co-authored by the Director of the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Karen Hacker states: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had direct and indirect effects on people with chronic disease. In addition to morbidity and mortality, high rates of community spread and various mitigation efforts, including stay-at-home recommendations, have disrupted lives and created social and economic hardships.” Despite chronic diseases being one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., the CDC and the Education Department have fallen short of issuing college-specific guidance to higher education leaders on ensuring a safe, inclusive, and equitable post-pandemic reopening for chronically disabled learners.  

There are several advantages to in-person classes, such as structuring the curriculum for multiple learning styles and eliminating potential distractions at home. But the abrupt removal of hybrid and fully remote course options will require students with disabilities, especially those who are immunocompromised or with complex medical needs, to climb a steeper hill in finishing their degree or credential. College students have voiced the importance of online classes–3 in 4 community college students surveyed in Spring 2022 want the option to take future courses entirely online as opposed to in-person. This finding was consistent for students currently taking in-person courses. 

Findings from a 2021 survey of Bronx Community College students suggest that 40 percent felt “not at all safe” returning to campus compared to just 16 percent who felt “very safe.” Small rooms, large class sizes, and lack of sanitation measures contributed to student concerns. But most importantly, students are aware of the serious risks they face from the virus. This fear partly explains the continuing hesitancy of many students to (re)enroll in college.

The piecemeal implementation of COVID-19 prevention measures necessary to provide a truly safe and inclusive in-person learning environment has ultimately hurt students with disabilities. College administrators and faculty should consider adopting four inclusive policies:

  1. Offer recorded or live-streamed classes. This approach will allow students with a heightened risk of illness from COVID-19 to keep up with their courses with minimal additional time and resources. Providing access to digital learning experiences would also allow people who are (or become) ill to continue their education without endangering others. 
  2. Create at least one-course section online by default. This approach minimizes the drawbacks of the hybrid education model by allowing the instructor of the online course section to focus on tailoring the curriculum for the learning experience.
  3. College leaders, especially staff from Disability Services departments, should grant accommodations that allow students to participate remotely, irrespective of medical documentation. Making students (and instructors) pass through a gauntlet of proving their medical needs causes unnecessary stress, affects the quality of instruction, and creates unintended retention barriers. In addition, while a doctor’s recommendation is often considered sufficient proof of a need for accommodations, some students may face structural barriers to accessing documentation commonly requested on time.
  4. College administrators should create a student advisory committee to gather input on the COVID-19 campus reopening plan. Facilitating opportunities for students to co-construct policies related to the campus reopening plan can help ensure that our most vulnerable students are not forgotten. For instance, a student advisory committee representing diverse identity-based groups, including individuals with disabilities, supports the development of student-centered policies regarding the reopening plan. 

These trauma-informed strategies can send a strong message to the broader campus community that college leaders do not just value providing a robust in-person experience for all learners but also value, but also value health, safety, and human life.  

*pseudonym used here for confidentiality purposes.

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Dr. Mauriell Amechi is a Senior Policy Analyst on Education and Labor at New America, Lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Visiting Scholar at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, and Justice at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Tweet Mauriell at @DrMAmechi.