COVID-19 Is Not Over for Those Most at Risk

COVID-19 Continues to Impact Those Most Vulnerable

As COVID-19’s deadly threat recedes, several institutions are loosening measures to prevent the virus from spreading. High-risk individuals, according to disability advocates, will suffer. 

College students and staff with disabilities are concerned that they may be neglected in the rush to reduce COVID-19 mitigation factors, even though the virus continues to pose a serious threat to high-risk people. 

Case rates differ dramatically by state, county, and city. In the face of local surges, several universities have already eliminated mask and vaccine regulations, while others have restored them or moved classes to virtual learning. Because of the figures, some student and employee activists want universal standards in place to safeguard those who are most vulnerable. 

Students are being made to choose between their education and life, according to some campaigners. 

“Universities aren’t necessarily listening to disabled students. That push to return to normal has persisted. It gets demoralizing, and it gets harder to continue to advocate. And it could potentially result in people stopping their education if they feel like they don’t have the resources to keep going and feel under supported.” 

Eiryn Griest Schwartzman, Co-Founder of COVID Safe Campus, an advocacy organization for students and employees with disabilities

College Responses Grading 

COVID Safe Campus, an organization of disabled high-risk academics and activists, recently released a report card that grades college COVID-19 regulations. They claim the attempt arose from concerns that high-risk students would be left behind when colleges returned to a normal life without COVID-19. 

With National Decision Day approaching on May 1, Griest Schwartzman said the report card is intended to raise awareness of school policies as potential students select a university. Schwartzman, who uses the pronouns they/them, expects that students will utilize the tool to locate a safe college. They also hope that it would encourage colleges to reform their rules. 

“Some of the schools that have higher grades have shown that they are more committed to public health, and they are ready to lead other schools. Students really need the assurance that [safety measures] are going to continue and they have predictability because the lack of predictability with all the changes in policies can be really disruptive to our education, work experiences.” 

Griest Schwartzman

Schwartzman admits that policy will eventually change by the time students return in the autumn, but that the report card will also alter. The very first version of the card was released earlier in April and will be updated regularly. They claim that universities with high scores are setting the standard for best practices, indicating a dedication to long-term support for students at high risk. 

Only 90 institutions are currently graded on the report card. COVID-19 tests, masking, and immunization policies, as well as admission to remote and hybrid learning options, are all evaluated. The data set that goes into these grades comes from information provided by students, instructors, and staff. 

The majority of the 90 institutions received a D or an F, and none received an A. 

On the record, the colleges on the lists don’t have a lot to say about the report cards. None of the roughly a dozen institutions contacted or responded with a statement regarding the reports. Yet, several questioned the data’s trustworthiness, methodology, and if it was relevant. 

The University of Washington, which scored an F, issued a statement highlighting that it created rules by proper recommendations. 

“The University of Washington has based every decision we have made regarding remote instruction, masking, vaccination, and testing on scientific evidence and guidance from our own experts and federal and local public health agencies,” spokesperson Victor Balta wrote in an emailed statement. “We have largely avoided broad transmission in our learning, working, and living spaces, we have provided free testing to our community, required vaccinations, and adjusted mask guidance as supported by scientific evidence. Providing a safe, healthy, and secure learning environment is paramount and, while we understand these are difficult and sensitive issues, we believe we have done what is best for our students, faculty, and staff.” 

Victor Balta, University of Washington’s Senior Director for Media Relations and Spokesperson

According to the small staff behind the report card, they say it is insufficient. They are concerned that unless COVID-19 control efforts are maintained, lives would be lost. COVID Safe Campus advocates want masking and immunization rules to stay in place, as also investments in improving air quality, specific housing for individuals in high0risk categories, and continuous remote learning access. 

“We should permanently have more precautions on campus. The flu is always here—we should wear masks as a courtesy for that. We should always include more public health measures on campus and more health communications to keep our communities healthy, especially when a lot of schools I know really want to invest in student health and the health of their entire campus community. And a way to do that is to continue some of the policies that we’ve seen taken away recently that we know are really effective, that we know can help include more people, and keep people in education, and help people graduate.” 

Griest Schwartzman

Best Practices for Communities at High-Risk 

As COVID Safe Campus supporters are harshly critical of colleges’ attempts to reduce mitigation measures, others believe that colleges have handled the epidemic well, even for individuals who are most vulnerable to the virus. 

“During COVID, they have risen to the challenge and provided more services, more hours and focused especially on students with high-risk conditions, those students who are disadvantaged in some way, that have a greater risk for exposure or risk of serious disease from COVID.

Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force

However, Taylor recognizes that institutions may do more, such as combating the stigma associated with wearing face masks as mask mandates decline across the United States. 

“I think we have to continue to be concerned about these individuals; I do think that each person has to take responsibility for themselves as well, and if they need to wear a mask, then they should not be discriminated against in any way. Colleges and workplaces should have campaigns to decrease any stigma for people who need to wear masks or need to do some of their work from home or need to be socially distanced. I think we’re going to find that and more of an acceptance and nonjudgmental attitude towards people who have those needs.” 

Gerri Taylor

Finally, the reactions and responses to COVID-19 have been as diverse as the colleges themselves. 

Several factors, such as state and municipal regulations, impact institutional responses to COVID-19, according to Jamie Axelrod, director of disability resources at Northern Arizona University and past president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability. 

There’s also the issue of money to consider. 

“A small private liberal arts college may have a very different set of resources, ways in which they deliver academic curriculum, as compared to a large public land-grant institution. But we have learned through the pandemic that there may be more varieties of ways to effectively deliver education than we thought before or that people were willing to try. For particular student situations, we may need to investigate what would be reasonable and appropriate and feasible.”

Jamie Axelrod

It’s critical to individualize services since each student and employee face a unique set of circumstances, for example, some with apparent disabilities, and others with invisible impairments. 

“I think that flexibility is going to be key, and the more flexibility we can build in from the beginning, the more people’s circumstances that will hopefully address, but we still may need to then hold open that possibility for individualization when it is reasonable and appropriate to do given the programs or the services. Of course, the other thing we can do is recognize that as we come back together, different people are going to make different personal choices about being in social circumstances and treating people’s choices about that in a respectful way.” 

Jamie Axelrod

While institutions can invest in things like ventilation, COVID-19 testing, and vaccination access, experts stress that keeping track of case rates is also vital. Even though present mitigation measures are imperfect, universities have two years of experience to draw on when it comes to shaping policy and being ready to respond to help their communities. 

“If the college is looking at air quality, looking at the data, flexing their mitigation strategies based on the metrics that they’re seeing a change in their communities, I think we can make the situation safer for all members of our community, including those with high-risk conditions. You also want to continue to encourage, as strongly as possible, vaccines and boosters. We know that those work, those are tried and true and have very few side effects if any.” 

Gerri Taylor

Information from Inside Higher ED

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Ashlyn Pieri

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