'Leaving us behind': High-risk students ask, why can't all college courses be offered online?

College sophomore Cameron Lynch has lived the past five months in a single square mile, only venturing outside her home a couple of times a week for early-morning or late-night walks. 

"It’s already a stressful time to be immunocompromised," said Lynch, who has Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and a form of muscular dystrophy. "Now, a good portion of able-bodied people are going back to the way life was, leaving us behind."

Several weeks ago, Lynch, who attends the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, authored a letter expressing her frustrations and posted it to social media. She never expected the response she would get: Dozens of immunocompromised college students from across the U.S. started reaching out to her, so they formed a support group to share information on the policies their schools were implementing.

Lynch is just one of the thousands of college students with weakened immune systems who are stuck inside amid the the coronavirus pandemic and navigating treacherous back-to-school dynamics. While many colleges and universities offered all classes online last spring, many aren't doing the same this fall, leaving immunocompromised students stressed out, rearranging schedules and locked in lengthy exchanges with accommodation offices.

People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19 and may be sick for a longer period of time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with conditions such as diabetes, sickle cell disease, chronic kidney disease and asthma are at greater risk, the CDC says.

"These are very real concerns for our immunocompromised students," said Dr. Khalilah Gates, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "Every immunocompromised state is not the same, so it is – as everything in COVID-19 has been – a risk-benefit discussion."

Khalilah said returning to campus – particularly living in dorms – poses significant risks to immunocompromised students. People in that age group are also more likely to participate in extracurricular activities that may increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission and exposure, she said.

"What COVID-19 has taught us is the need to be flexible and the need to adapt," Khalilah said. "If that means the ability to participate in online learning, then that needs to be something we consider for those that would benefit." 

Samantha Price, who has Type 1 diabetes, was one of the students who saw Lynch's posts on social media. The two had met 10 years ago when they were both living in Richmond, Virginia. They had been participating in a theater program when Lynch saw Price whip out her insulin pump. Now, Price is helping Lynch coordinate the online support group for immunocompromised college students.

"We realized that we weren’t alone in the struggles," said Price, a rising junior at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, who is pursuing communications and digital studies. "Both of us had been going back and forth with our universities, trying to get answers about how they would be supporting us."

The group soon realized that while many universities were going fully or primarily online – about a quarter of four-year schools in the U.S. – or implementing a hybrid course model, not all were offering online students the same options as in-person learners.

"Some of my classes aren’t offered online. The school is expecting me to drop those classes and sign up for alternative classes," Price said last week. "That’s a problem because I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my classes of choice when an able-bodied student gets to go into class."

Price and Lynch argue that such policies violate the Americans with Disabilities Act – a 1990 law that guarantees equal protection for people with a wide range of disabilities – because students with disabilities do not have access to the same resources as everyone else. That's why the two penned a letter to 12 public colleges and universities in Virginia to demand the institutions ensure equitable learning.

"Without remote learning options for all their classes, hundreds of immunocompromised students are being forced to either risk their health and attend in-person classes or make last-minute changes to their carefully designed schedules to switch to a limited variety of online courses," the students wrote.

"We should not have to alter our college plans or disrupt our graduation timelines because of physical or cognitive conditions that put us at a greater risk, while normal students continue a forward path."

Students who have difficulty attending traditional college classes have long been calling for greater access to online courses. The pandemic has only "heightened" the issue, said Robin Jones, director of the Great Lakes ADA Center in Chicago.

While the ADA requires institutions to explore what options are available to students expressing concerns, it does not require an institution to provide a program or service that they are not already providing, Jones said.

At the same time, the pandemic has demonstrated that schools were able to offer online classes in the spring, even if they hadn't in the past, Jones said.

"So the argument that a college or university cannot offer a course remotely is somewhat negated because they already demonstrated that they are able to do so for everyone," Jones said.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education released a brief "fact sheet" providing guidance to schools on how to address the risk of COVID-19 while protecting the civil rights of students. The guidance reminded schools that they must continue to comply with their non-discrimination obligations under federal civil rights laws, including the ADA.

Offering online options as "individually-oriented accommodations" runs the risk of excluding people with disabilities from university activities, the Accessible Campus Action Alliance, a group of faculty with disabilities and their allies, said in a June statement. The group called for "safe, equitable, and inclusive online-centric teaching" during the pandemic.

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