For some college students, remote learning is a game changer

Although many college students have struggled with remote learning over the last year, some with disabilities found it to be a lifeline. As the fall semester approaches, those students are pushing for remote accommodations to continue, even as in-person classes resume.

Written by Amanda Morris and Emily Anthes

When Daniel Goldberg took his final exams in December, he was attired in little more than a baby-blue hospital gown with an intravenous line snaking out of his arm.

Over the past year, Goldberg, a 24-year-old law student at Arizona State University, has toggled between attending classes and consulting with his doctors — sometimes from his hospital bed.

Before the pandemic, Goldberg, who has a painful, chronic inflammatory bowel disease, missed classes whenever he needed medical attention. But over the past academic year, he did not miss a single class, and he said he had become a better student as a result.

“It’s helped me realize, like, ‘Wait, why can’t I get these accommodations all the time?’” he said. “I should be able to attend via Zoom if I need to.”

Goldberg, whose condition also leaves him immunocompromised and more vulnerable to the coronavirus, asked for online accommodations as classes return in person this fall — a request the university recently granted.

Although many college students have struggled with remote learning over the last year, some with disabilities found it to be a lifeline. As the fall semester approaches, those students are pushing for remote accommodations to continue, even as in-person classes resume.

In fact, long before the pandemic, many students with disabilities had been calling for such accommodations, often to little avail. The past year, however, has made remote instruction seem more feasible. While some colleges have resisted remote learning as an accommodation, others say they are considering it.

“The argument in the past, pre-COVID, was, ‘Of course, an online course is fundamentally different than a course in the classroom,’” said Arlene Kanter, an expert in disability law at the Syracuse University College of Law. “Well, COVID changed all that.”

Colleges and universities are generally required to provide “reasonable” accommodations or modifications for qualified students with disabilities — as long as those changes do not “fundamentally alter” the nature of the program or pose other undue burdens for the institutions.

Those terms have always been open to interpretation and debate. But because many colleges did not offer discounts on tuition for remote learning last year, they could have a harder time arguing that it is fundamentally different from, or inferior to, in-person instruction.

“It becomes maybe a little tricky for school officials to then later claim that going online would be a serious degradation of the educational environment,” said Adam M. Samaha, an expert in constitutional and disability law at New York University’s School of Law. “If that is good-enough education, then a student might claim, ‘Why not extend the same principle to a person who has physical difficulty commuting to the classroom?’”

Cameron Lynch believes colleges were not built with students like her in mind. To get to class at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Lynch, a rising sophomore with muscular dystrophy, said she had to navigate uneven brick walkways. And some of the campus’s old buildings lack accessibility features like elevators or ramps.

“Walking to class is always kind of difficult, regardless of COVID, so it’s nice to be online,” Lynch said.

Lynch, who also has celiac disease and diabetes, is immunocompromised. And even though she is vaccinated, she is fearful of getting the coronavirus and has lived much of the past year in isolation.

Last year, when her college started offering classes in person again, she discovered that some of the classes she needed to take for her double major in sociology and government were no longer being offered online. She brought her concerns to the college’s disability services office. It declined to allow her to attend her required classes remotely.

“They kind of just told me to take an extra semester,” Lynch said.

Lynch, who took online courses over the summer to catch up, said she was “stressed out” about the fall semester and unsure whether she would be able to take all the classes she needed online.

Suzanne Clavet, a spokeswoman for William & Mary, declined to comment on Lynch’s case and said the college considered online learning as a possible accommodation on a case-by-case basis. In an email, she said, “In some instances, remote courses are not possible if this would result in a fundamental alteration of the course.”

Remote accommodations appeal to some faculty members, too. Cornell University faced pushback from faculty members when it announced that it would “not approve requests” for remote teaching, for reasons including disability accommodations.

Two days later, the university said that “short-term or partial remote instruction” could be considered for those unable to study or teach in person this fall. But “not a lot of classes” would be considered eligible for remote instruction, even if they were taught remotely last year, said Michael I. Kotlikoff, Cornell’s provost.

Lynch said that in Chronic and Iconic, an informal online support group that she founded for immunocompromised college students, students could “rant with people who get it” when they might otherwise feel isolated and unsupported on campus.

Students don’t have much recourse. “I can’t sue because it’s too expensive, and I didn’t want to cause any problems in my school,” Lynch said.

Even just knowing that online classes are an option can help students with disabilities by assuring them that there is a safety net.

Last semester, Sophia Martino, a senior at the University of Missouri who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, chose to attend two lab-based classes in person. In May, she got sick with COVID-19, despite being vaccinated.

Even after that hard year, she plans to take classes in person this fall. But knowing that the university has already given a handful of students permission to attend classes remotely this year, she said, makes her feel better about attending in-person classes, because there are accommodations if she needs them.

“The idea of remote instruction as an accommodation is something that’s newer from the pandemic,” said Ashley Brickley, director of the university’s disability center.

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