This week I had to ask myself a question many students will ask: What should I do if I’m a little sick?
Many colleges provide an answer through a standard policy: stay home. By switching to virtual classes or delaying the start of the term, universities take the burden of this decision off of the student. However, the University of Michigan has made their decision to keep classes in-person, and in doing so, they’ve forced us to decide.
I caught a cold Christmas morning and was about 98% recovered by the time classes started. I still had a sore throat at night and was a bit sniffly, but was well enough that I knew I could get through a day of classes without coughing or blowing my nose.
I was thankful that on-campus housing decided at the last minute to send us at-home COVID-19 tests, and I managed to get my first negative result before my back-to-back Wednesday classes. While the result gave me permission to go to my classes, I was still unsure. One professor said in her syllabus to stay home if we were sick, but that only two absences were allowed. The other professor hadn’t posted a syllabus at the time I was making the decision. I decided to go to my classes and was glad I was able to go in person. I also learned they were set up for remote students to join as well.
However, I still can’t shake the thought that I may have made the wrong decision. Maybe the test gave me a false negative. Maybe it didn’t. Either way, I know whatever I had was contagious — since my whole family got it when I was home — and even if it wasn’t covid, colds can still harm people. My mother has asthma and gets bronchitis from colds more often than not. If someone is immunocompromised, a cold can still send them to the hospital, which lately may not have beds left by the time they need one.
Of course, most students are spared the agony of these decisions. Many students in my situation wouldn’t even wait to get tested before they’d go to classes, since they’d assume they were fine if they were in recovery. Some students who have asked the question have gotten the response to stay home. However, the decision is rarely as simple as “Go virtual or come to class.” Many professors don’t have the necessary staff, training or equipment to host hybrid classes. Additionally, many subjects simply don’t work for hybrid formats and in some cases, students are marked down for too many absences. In a recent announcement, University President Schlissel called on professors to be flexible about these absences, but didn’t announce any decisions to give teachers the support necessary for remote learning. The university is forcing us to make tough decisions.
Who are we prioritizing?
From the beginning, people have protested virtual classes because of the learning loss it creates for students. We’re social beings, and we like to learn in person. Not all subjects are easy to move online. Even for classes that are, I have ADHD and have trouble paying attention if I’m not sitting in the front row of a class. My sibling is legally blind and can’t see any material when they have to split a screen between zoom and lecture slides. Many people have suffered from mental health issues with remote learning. For many of us disabled students, in-person class is an accommodation.
However, the opposite is true as well. People who are immunocompromised or have mobility issues are depending on remote instruction. Working class students who have a significant commute also benefit from virtual classes, since they’re able to work more hours and save money in case of emergency medical bills. People in multi-generational households are safer if their children or grandkids aren’t being exposed to 80+ people a week. Virtual classes can help both people with disabilities that interact with the pandemic and people disabled by the pandemic.
No matter what decision we make, someone is going to be hurt. With the shortage of at-home tests, we need to think of the thousands of people in dire need of them who couldn’t get one because they were bought up by the residence halls to test asymptomatic students. However, the University is also preventing people from making decisions they know will help.
I’m fortunate enough to have classes where our professors are willing to work with us around absences, but many professors are forcing students to go to class in person. Similarly, I’ve heard stories of departments threatening the jobs of professors who try to go virtual. What if departments instead gave resources to professors to support hybrid or virtual options? Disabled staff and faculty are disproportionately forced to choose between their jobs and their safety. What if University leadership instead created policies to prevent these unfair situations?
We may not have any perfect solutions, but there are ways to both minimize danger and maximize learning if the university is willing to put in the work and funds. We don’t know if COVID-19 will go away or become an everyday risk like the flu. But if we put in the time and work to create meaningful solutions to education during the pandemic, those solutions may allow our community to be more resilient against future threats to public health. We’ve always had students and faculty with disabilities who are in danger if they get sick, and sick disabled students who are hurt by staying home. Now, we can use the pandemic as an excuse to finally develop adequate accommodations. We can use this opportunity to make education more equitable and accessible for everyone.
Winter McLeod is a Masters student at the School of Education and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.