Many students, including those with disabilities, are fighting for accommodations to attend classes virtually after Western returned to in-person learning last month.
Ashton Forrest, a philosophy master’s student and member of the Post-Secondary Education Standards Development Committee, said many students with disabilities were pushing the petition and are struggling to receive accommodation from the university.
“It's really not safe to be in big crowds or come into a classroom. There's no social distancing or installation and even with masks that's not enough. So for those who have compromised immune systems like myself, campus is not 100 per cent safe,” said Forrest.
Layla Adrianovska, a fourth-year student studying German, ran into difficulties while requesting accommodation to attend classes virtually this year for her pheochromocytoma, a rare condition that causes fatigue, making it hard for her to leave her house or sit for long periods of time. In email communication with Western University, Adrianovska was told that she may either receive a tuition refund or defer her degree instead of receiving accommodation for her disability.
“Western is an in-person campus for the remainder of the term,” reads an email Adrianovska received from Western Student Experience. “You can accordingly seek a tuition refund … [or] determine if you are eligible to defer this year’s registration to a later date where public health conditions may have changed.”
A statement from Western explained that students may meet with an Accessible Education counsellor to obtain information about “specific accommodations and services that may be available to them.” But according to Adrianovska, these resources sometimes aren’t helpful.
“It's almost like it comes down to luck with who you have as your counsellor which just doesn't seem right.”
After the university told her she had to return to campus, Adrianvoska reached out to her professors individually though her accessibility counsellor to request accommodations. She has one in-person class this semester, for which her professor was willing to accommodate her to attend class online after coordinating with her counsellor.
Sarah Brunke, a graduate student in occupational therapy, explained how students with disabilities must provide documentation each time they request accommodations. She said this process has grown more difficult during the pandemic.
“I would say it's still difficult since our healthcare system is under strain from the pandemic. In general it's difficult to have the documentation and to ask for that documentation when everyone is so burnt out also,” said Brunke.
Adding to frustrations with accommodations, Forrest also feels the university isn’t doing everything they can to inform students about the spread of the coronavirus on campus
On Oct. 8 last year, Forrest received an email from her department discouraging a student from communicating that they had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Please know everyone that there is a tracking system in place and if you are exposed or you contract COVID-19, the people who need to be notified will be notified through this system. There is no need to email your contacts yourselves. In fact, we are discouraged from doing so,” read the email from the chair of the philosophy department.
Western did not comment on the contents of the email, but said that the MLHU now advises “those with symptoms or who have tested positive for COVID-19 should inform close contacts that they have been exposed to COVID-19 and should follow the requirements for close contacts.”
According to Western’s current policy, undergraduate students self-isolating due to COVID-19 must complete a Self-Assessment tool and will be expected to remain off campus for five days.
Brunke attends class at Elborn College and said she felt her learning environment was unsafe with the potential to harm vulnerable populations.
“It’s an older building. So a lot of the rooms are really small, like there’s some rooms without windows, so I can only imagine how the ventilation is,” said Brunke. “We do work with a lot of populations that are vulnerable and are at high risk. So it just seems kind of silly to be like ‘let's cram you all into classrooms for this lecture we can learn online, but you have to be in person’.”
Western has hired an external consultant to assess the ventilation in its classrooms and prepared a classroom-by-classroom analysis on the robustness of its ventilation.
“The Middlesex-London Health Unit … has not flagged our ventilation systems as a concern for COVID-19 transmission, and the steps being taken are precautionary as there have been no known cases of COVID-19 transmission through building ventilation systems on campus,” states Western’s website.
Students like Adrianovska feel having the option to continue to attend classes online would resolve many of the barriers vulnerable students are faced with and be easy for the university to organize.
“I honestly don't understand because I know so many universities are giving the option … I genuinely don't think it's that much extra work to put on a Zoom call during class. I was under the understanding that they had set up cameras last year,” said Adrianovska.
Western says that their goal is for students to be on campus for in-person learning.
“The pandemic continues to be incredibly difficult for so many people in our community and our goal is to bring all students back to campus safely as soon as possible … Students are asked to make arrangements to be in London by the date specified for their courses to return to in-person delivery,” said a statement from Western.
Students from other universities such as Simon Fraser University and McGill University have protested the return to in-person learning at their institutions. Both universities have remained fully in-person.
An online petition fighting for the option for Western students to attend classes online received over 3,600 signatures in January, over halfway to reaching its goal of 5,000 signatures.
Western’s petition also appeared to gain traction among students without disabilities who wanted to decide whether they wished to be exposed to the risk of COVID-19 on campus.
“We should not be forcing students into those situations where they feel unsafe or not like they have a choice,” Brunke said.
Brunke also feels as if the push towards in-person learning is ignoring the potential for more learning opportunities with a hybrid model.
“When everything did transition to online there [were] so many opportunities for … reimagining the way university is like … and to make things more accessible to more people,” said Brunke. “There's so much pushback to what they're comfortable with instead of trying to embrace the new opportunities arising.”
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