By Gabby Morreale ’23
When I first read President Quillen’s email reporting that we would be returning to campus for the Fall 2020 semester, my first instinct was to worry. This feeling alarmed me: Hadn’t I talked with my classmates for the past three months about how much I wanted to return to campus? Hadn’t I loathed all the Zoom classes, wishing I were sitting at Nummit with work for my Ethics class and a friend across from me? Why was I so apprehensive?
It was when I had my usual semester meeting with the Academic Access and Disability Resources Office that I understood my discomfort. I have severe-to-profound hearing loss, which requires me to wear hearing aids and use special accommodations, such as preferential seating and microphones, to be able to hear my classmates and teachers. Along with the announcement of coming back, the administration also emphasized the new policy of wearing masks on campus that all students and staff would have to follow, which means that I would have to strain even harder to hear the people around me. Discussion groups would become a nightmare, not to mention any sort of social interaction I might have outside of class.
Davidson’s refusal to go fully online presents a number of small but detrimental problems for those who use accommodations. In discussion with my classmate Elizabeth Brubaker ‘23, who also wears hearing aids and uses a classmate’s notes accommodation, she mentioned that she will have to rely more heavily on other students’ notes because it will be difficult to hear during an in-person class. Attending class online while her other classmates are in the classroom could be even worse because the audio might miss or even mess up her classmates’ conversations while they are wearing masks and sitting apart. This means she’ll have to fill in the missing gaps of class and essentially teach herself the material, so, as Elizabeth expressed, “it’ll be more time-consuming.”
My classmate Rory Fallmer ‘23 suffered a head injury during the Fall 2019 semester and records class lectures as part of her accommodations. She expressed that she has not received information on what the in-person class setup will look like. “My [recording device] may not be able to pick everything up with people sitting so far apart and wearing masks,” she explained. She also mentioned that she actually preferred the all-online classes approach of the Spring 2020 semester over in-person classes. Having the ability to control where she took her Zoom calls allowed her to limit and control unrelated outside noise and environmental distractions, thus helping her focus better on student-to-student interactions and live class activities.
Beth Bleil, Director of Academic Access and Disability, suggested adaptations to accommodations during my meeting, such as clear masks, face shields, and plexiglass. Despite these adaptations, those with sensory impairments like Rory, Elizabeth and I will have to devote extra attention and energy to absorb the information we learn in an in-person class, let alone complete the assignments. With full online instruction, we’d be securely on the same page as our other classmates, remove the hassle of masks and social distancing, and avoid worrying about what we might miss in an in-person flex/hybrid class.
Being on campus puts a strain on physically disabled people as well, both in and out of class. If they have to be six feet apart from others, those who have physical handicaps that require assistance from able-bodied people will not be able to easily function day-to-day. Social distancing guidelines cut down the number of people allowed in any closed space, further limiting who can assist those with physical handicaps and thus posing further stressors for this group. Emergency situations, such as fire drills, active shooters, or extreme weather conditions where those with sensory disabilities rely on the help of others, will put this group at risk every day. In-person accommodations require time and consistent interaction, and Davidson’s new regulations for the Fall 2020 semester leave little room for either of these necessities.
Recent Davidsonian Perspectives pieces by Dashanae Hughes ‘21 and Snneha Saha ‘21 discussed concerns with the administration’s approach to the fall semester, making it apparent that Davidson has not fully realized the accountability they must accept with this decision. The points that Hughes and Saha raise about the problems students of color and international students will face this semester are extremely important. Adjusting in-person class accommodations to fit the COVID college experience seems yet another facet that does not fit into Davidson’s decision. In order to even come close to being able to gather on campus, the administration must make it a priority to continuously communicate its decisions with these groups at Davidson because every choice affects them the most.
A fighting chance of returning to campus is an enormous privilege we have as a small school, and Davidson clearly is taking every precaution to prevent the spread of COVID on campus. But right now, the risks of returning to campus seem to outweigh the benefits. It does not appear that Davidson accepts the hardships that will certainly come with carrying out this kind of decision. By allowing the hybrid and flex models for classes, students with accommodations and those who are immunocompromised must either choose online classes mainly on the basis of convenience, or take classes they want to take with an uncertainty about the quality of the education they will receive. Davidson College prides itself on being an institution where its members look out for each other. If the administration is not consistently supportive and honest with its students during challenging times, then we cannot be the community we claim to be.
Gabby Morreale ’23 is a sophomore intended Communication Studies major and Philosophy minor. Contact Gabby at firstname.lastname@example.org.