Medically vulnerable students voice concerns as classes resume this fall

Thursday, September 10, 2020 - 8:49pm

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Design by Mellisa Lee

Because students with underlying conditions are more vulnerable to COVID-19, they face new challenges while returning to campus this fall. About 70% of classes are being held entirely online, but some still require in-person attendance, which can force these students to decide whether to risk their health or their degree.

Kinesiology senior Akshay Luthra experienced a medical emergency when he was 15 and has since experienced a weakening of his lungs and developed gastroparesis, among other issues. He said these conditions weaken his immune system and put him at risk not only for being more susceptible to COVID-19, but also make him more likely to experience life-threatening consequences if he does contract it.

Luthra said though returning to campus may place him in danger, he felt the benefits of being back in Ann Arbor for his mental health were substantial enough to outweigh the risk.

“It had to do a lot with mental health, actually,” Luthra said. “(At home, in) the case of being high risk, it was a lot of just barricading myself in the house, and I definitely had a lot of low days this summer. I just needed to see and interact with new people, and so I was just like, ‘I'll still be safe; I'll still be in my apartment; I'll be wearing a mask all the time when I walk outside, but I need to just do this for my mental health.’”

Luthra’s struggles with mental health during the pandemic were shared by many of his peers, and now that many students have returned to campus, social gatherings of unmasked students in large groups have begun popping up. Luthra said he relies on other students for his safety, and he wishes all of them abided by social distancing mandates.

“It's easy to tell that people don’t care as much as they should,” Luthra said. “They think that they’re the safest age and don’t need to worry about it. (They think that) even if they get it, they’ll get over it, but the point of masks isn’t to save you, it’s to save people like me and people that are at a higher risk. It’s very selfish.”

Cheyanne Killin, LSA senior and the 2019-2020 Undergraduate Chair of the Services for Students with Disabilities student advisory board, said she chose not to return to campus due to pre-existing conditions.

“The University has not only put the lives of chronically ill and high-risk students in jeopardy, but also reinforced the ableist notion that my life and my presence at this University do not matter,” Killin said. “I should not need to choose between not graduating with my degree and losing my life, or at best what's remaining of my health.”

Killin said her friends are concerned for their health, even going as far as considering writing wills. 

“I have a couple of friends who are considering writing their wills because they're either one semester away from graduation, or they have scholarship requirements that they can’t get out of. Everybody is kind of scrambling and afraid, and not being supported in any way,” Killin said.

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen told The Daily that a good resource for students with medical conditions is the Campus Blueprint website. She also said these students should reach out to a few campus offices for more help.

“Students with disabilities and/or chronic health conditions —including those who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19—are encouraged to contact their professor/instructor, the Dean of Students Office (DOS), and/or Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to explore educational arrangements or accommodations for in-person courses,” Broekhuizen wrote.

But Killin said she believes administration has not done enough to protect medically vulnerable students.

“The Administration’s silence is not only deafening but murderous, now that this incomplete plan has been put into action,” Killin said.

LSA senior Lauren Payne, who has a thyroid condition that causes her to have weakened immunity to the virus, echoed Luthra’s sentiments regarding social gatherings on campus.

“It's really frustrating,” Payne said, “It doesn’t really feel like (my peers care about me) because people are being irresponsible and pretending it’s a personal health choice when it’s really a public health choice.”

Payne said there is ableism at play when students gather in large settings and how their acts further enable the virus to spread.

“They’re putting people at risk because they’ve lived most of their lives in positions of privilege and are healthy,” Payne said. “It’s never going to get better if we don't get ourselves under control.”

Payne said she can’t utilize learning as well as other medically vulnerable students might because as a senior, she is mainly enrolled in labs, which require in-person work. Though Payne recognizes that her professor is supposed to comply with medical requests of online learning, she worries she won’t gain enough from that experience.

“I think that if I really wanted to get in touch with my professors, I could find ways to not go to the labs, but it would be pretty detrimental to my learning of the material,” Payne said.

Luckily, Payne is in the Program in the Environment and her classes take place in large outdoor spaces which allow her to remain more than six feet away from anyone else. Payne’s roommate, LSA senior Theodora Reynolds, is also a student in PitE and was supposed to have an in-person tutorial with her professor for a class she was taking.

Reynolds immediately expressed her concern with meeting in person due to Payne’s health risk. Reynolds said she assumed it would be an easy switch to attend their meetings via Zoom. Her professor, however, did not agree.

After Reynolds requested online accommodations for the course, her professor responded that he is neither required nor able to make the tutorial online for Reynolds, despite any health concerns she may have.

“I recognize that (attending class outdoors while socially distanced and wearing a mask) may not be safe enough for some students and they should take courses that are entirely remote,” her professor wrote.  “(The class) is offered as in-person and I have to assume students signed up with that understanding.”

He continued, explaining that he is not required to utilize online learning platforms when a student expresses health concerns, and he would, therefore, not allow the course to be online.

“My agreement with the administration is that if I organize an in-person class, especially this time-consuming tutorial, I do not simultaneously organize an online class,” the professor wrote. “I am sorry this is not ideal and fully appreciate your safety concerns.”

Though he was apologetic, Reynolds said she saw no other option than to drop the course, in fear that walking from one side of campus to another would put her roommate in danger.

“Even though I would only be exposed to him during the tutorials, I would have to walk a half hour there and back through downtown Ann Arbor where there’s no way for me to guarantee that I can avoid people who aren’t wearing masks or aren't wearing their masks properly,” Reynolds said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at jsiteman@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis contributed to reporting.