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Opinion: students deserve the choice to Zoom into class, even post-COVID-19

Piper Lehr

Contributing Writer

Instagram post from @wuaffirmations with images of the highly attended Oct. 21 ASWU Senate meeting and an email from a professor denying remote attendance

As of April 2022, Willamette University has not had a coherent Zoom policy outlined on their website, over email, or elsewhere easily accessible to the community. This has led to professors being the arbiters of how much or little a student is allowed to use Zoom in their classroom, which, in my opinion, has been a mistake. Though leaving the choice to Zoom up to students could lead to some abusing the system, overall the benefits, especially including increased accessibility to the classroom for people with a wide range of disabilities, of implementing this policy would far outweigh the negatives. Comments garnered from students suggest that the University needs to allow Zoom, and the claim that Oregon is past “peak” pandemic phase - [which is debatable] - is not an excuse.

There is no greater paragon of this Zoom problem than what happened last October after the [ASWU College Republicans disaffiliation meeting], which was widely attended with minimal distancing. A student who had attended tested positive for COVID-19, and Don Thomson, director of Bishop Wellness Center subsequently wrote a message to the entirety of Willamette’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). This message was sent out by Lisa Landreman, vice president of student affairs. Content-wise, the email informed students that all who attended were considered “possible close contacts” as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The email also said that students without symptoms were not allowed to quarantine, but that they should still get tested due to the recent exposure.

Screenshot of email sent out by Lisa Landreman following the highly attended ASWU College Republicans disafilliation meeting to alert the community of a positive case in attendance.

While the contents of this email certainly coincide with the COVID-19 isolation guidelines listed on the University’s website, which state that [“CDC guidance states that people identified as close contacts who are up to date with their vaccinations and remain symptom free do not generally need to quarantine,”] The issue with this policy is that it also contradicts other CDC information, such as the fact that [symptoms may take as much as 2-14 days to appear after exposure]. What this means in terms of University policy is that students who may have COVID-19 are forced to be potential walking incubators on campus until they can get a confirmed positive test. Furthermore, because the University does not have a coherent Zoom policy, any professor can give their students an ultimatum: go to class and potentially infect your fellow peers, or miss out on class and potentially get a worse grade.

Danny Davis (‘23) and Maya Lucero-Romero (‘23), a leader of the newly-formed Neurodivergent People of Color (NDPOC) club on the Salem campus, both attended the ASWU CR meeting and subsequently had this experience. Lucero-Romero reached out to all of their professors for Zoom accommodations shortly afterwards, and was rebuffed by two out of three of them. Lucero-Romero isn’t a fan of how this system “forces people to be in a place where they give up their safety or they give up their education,” speculating that most students at WU would choose their education first in situations such as these. They don’t blame their peers though, given that there’s currently no good alternatives when it comes to isolation. Davis experienced much the same situation. They told me that they didn’t even bother to reach out to their professors - not out of a lack of compassion for their peers, but because they felt they already knew what their responses would be. “I didn’t directly email any of the professors. I got the email [from Landreman] and then I didn’t end up doing any quarantining with those classes because it was only if we tested positive. I was like, ‘that seems a little late,’” they stated. They emphasized that while they “definitely tried to isolate outside of class and things,” they didn’t see the point in reaching out when their professors had made their stances on Zoom clear throughout the semester already. For a University that has consistently stated that it cares about limiting the number of COVID-19 cases on-campus as much as possible, these guidelines simply don’t make sense and aren’t considerate to the student experience at all. That’s not even to mention asymptomatic carriers and immunocompromised individuals, for whom this isolation and lack of a Zoom policy also neglect.

While the ASWU CR meeting isolation issues are a very obvious example of why this system needs some re-tooling, there’s more to this issue than first meets the eye. According to not only Lucero-Romero, but also Director of People Relations and Inclusions Kayden Cantrell (‘23) and Director of Programing Molly Murphy-Brown (‘23) of the Neurodivergent Student Union (NDSU), as well as Andrew Caruana (‘24), president of the Disabilities Advocacy Club (DAC), there exists another pressing, non-pandemic reason to allow students more free reign to Zoom: the fact that it is an extremely accessible service. Caruana, who was interviewed after the [mask mandated was lifted earlier than expected], explained, “the issue with them ending Zoom for the most part is kind of the same symptom of the same issue when it comes to ending mask mandates before the end of the term, which is just like, I get that the able-bodied community on this campus wants a sense of normalcy…but they are completely leaving out a very, very large chunk of this campus that that just doesn’t work for.” Accessibility issues are often overlooked by professors when they make their policies. It is not entirely their fault, as a lot of the benefits of Zoom for students with disabilities can be literally hidden from view. Cantrell, for example, talked about how Zoom was really beneficial for his concept of time, which is very poor due to his ADHD: “as a neurodivergent person I have a lot of trouble with executive functioning–like making myself do tasks, switch tasks very quickly. Literally last year was the only time ever I’ve been on-time to my classes,” they explained. Caruana talked about how Zoom was beneficial for him in terms of navigating campus: “pandemic safety aside-which is probably another question on its own…I have cerebral palsy and it makes walking long distances and getting up stairs and navigating some of the building accessibility issues kind of difficult, so having the option to be on Zoom was really helpful for me personally.” Finally, Lucero-Romero described how the ability to use Zoom last year helped them with their issues with being perceived, a symptom stemming from their autism: “If I was feeling like, ‘I don’t want to be perceived that day,’ I could turn off my camera and still be there. Now if I don’t want to be perceived today, I miss a class.”

To a professor, last year it may have looked as if students were simply on-time as expected, and others appeared to be any other student attending class with their camera off. But that wasn’t the case, and it’s problematic to allow professors to decide how sympathetic they want to be to a student’s symptoms. The University apparently has a broader issue when it comes to deciding how able they think a particular student is, judging by the recent [expulsion of Charlie Li from WU’s law school] due to perceptions from higher-ups that she was lying about her illness. I’m not sure why a lot of University staff seem to feel that they have the ability to know a student’s problems better than students themselves (or even paperwork from their doctor, as in Li’s case), but it’s nevertheless concerning that we keep running into issues such as these.

According to Caruana, he’s managed to get other accommodations from a professor who teaches a class all the way over in Hallie Ford. He only attends that class two out of three times a week, and the third day he watches a pre-recorded lecture. But the question still remains: why not have the class be the most accessible it can be at all times? While it’s true that Zoom incentivizes some students to participate less than they normally would, I personally think that the possibility of opening up the classroom for those who are struggling with either health or mental health conditions is a benefit that far outweighs the cost. Requiring students to miss out on a day when they’re not feeling as sharp due to biological reasons when we have an alternative just feels icky. Also, if it’s the case that a professor is not allowing Zoom because they do not want to deal with the technological hurdles, I feel like that’s something that could be fixed via existing services, especially Willamette[’s] Integrated Technology Services (WITS).

To clarify: Many professors have been reasonable post the height of the pandemic, and have been offering hybrid options regardless. In fact, another Collegian staffer recently discovered that [a lot of faculty were actually instrumental forces in getting the quiet period at the beginning of the semester instated due to personal fears for their safety and other safety concerns in regards to their vulnerable children.] I agree with the overall point of Bertellotti’s piece - that we shouldn’t have ended the quiet period - but I do think that this particular paragraph misses out on a lot of the nuance of the situation by only interviewing one professor on the more understanding side. While I have indeed encountered a handful of professors who’ve allowed free reign of the service, I’ve also had an equal number of professors this year who’ve been requiring in-person lectures and not offering hybrid options at all. The student body must keep in mind – especially able students enrolled in classes with COVID-sympathethic professors – that some professors, with an understandable desire to return to normalcy, have nevertheless been implementing that desire in a way that comes at the expense of important student concerns.

Not only would giving students the option to use Zoom or allowing other such alternative forms of attendance have the potential to decrease the amount of cases on-campus and increase accessibility, but it also has the potential to mitigate backlash in regards to the recent lifting of the mask mandate policy. Allowing students the universal ability to Zoom into class could make students, especially those who are immunocompromised or otherwise more vulnerable to COVID-19, less stressed about the situation as a whole by allowing them to negate the risk of encountering maskless individuals on-campus entirely. Especially since the alternative that we have right now, as outlined in the announcement email sent out by the Willamette COVID Advisory Team, puts the onus on immunocompromised individuals to take extra precautions in order to ensure their safety during in-person classes.

Screenshot of part of the email announcing that the mask mandate policy will be lifted as soon as March 12th, sent out by Willmette’s COVID Advisory Team.

The University’s expectations of immunocompromised individuals for the rest of the semester are tone-deaf and don’t match the rhetoric of an administration (admin) that has purported to care about limiting the amount of COVID-19 cases on campus as much as possible in recent years.

Caruana said that he’s had discussions with professors regarding the use of Zoom moving forward, and said that, “based off of my understanding, what they’re hoping to go for is to have Zoom…access to all professors and then if a student needs it they would contact the professor and set it up that way. The expectation would be that the professor would then honor the request.” But he elaborated that he thinks what’ll happen in reality is, “if a student requires an accommodation for Zoom they’d have to go through accessible education [services] (AES) and then it would fall on accessible education to be the determining factor, which, I have pretty strong feelings about.” As already established in a [previous Collegian article], it can be pretty difficult to receive accommodations from the AES in general. For instance, Murphy-Brown, who has both ADHD and dyslexia, told me about her experience with the AES last semester while she was struggling with her thesis class – a class that was almost entirely based on reading homework. She said that the “University did not give me any support in that,” further elaborating, “they just gave me, like, text-to-speech accommodations but I already had ways to do that. And the ways they gave me didn’t really apply to the articles I was reading so it didn’t help me at all.” Murphy-Brown then asked the AES for other support mechanisms but “they just didn’t have any.” If Murphy-Brown’s experience with and Caruana’s hesitancy about the AES is anything to go off of, then evidently this would be a problematic work-around to the situation. This solution also doesn’t account for those who are undiagnosed or are having non-AES-related problems like the ASWU CR isolation issues. Finally, even if the University does end up deciding not to use AES as the deciding factor in who gets to use Zoom moving forward, it’s questionable if professors would honor the accommodation requests sent their way, if the email in the [WU affirmation] above, as well as both my and these students’ experiences are anything to take into account.

At the end of the day, not having a coherent Zoom policy has led to a lot of confusion and problematic results on the student side of things, and the University very clearly needs to re-evaluate the way that they’re currently allowing the service to operate in the classroom. Zoom makes life way more accessible for a wide range of students, especially vulnerable populations such as the disabled and immunocompromised, and it’s my opinion that we shouldn’t be docking attendance points when it’s simply not necessary. Lucero-Romero put it succinctly: “After COVID, Zoom will still make school more accessible. But it just won’t be for everyone. It will be mainly for disabled populations…if we were to get rid of Zoom after COVID, I feel like that would be ableist.”

The Neurodivergent Student Union meets every Monday from 6-7 p.m. in Montag Den.

The Disabilities Advocacy Club meets every Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. in Montag Den.

Neurodivergent People of Color meet every Monday from 4-5 p.m. in the Student Center for Equity and Empowerment and Multicultural Affairs (E & E).

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