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Princeton Disability Collective: Online learning and teaching options must be available to all

<h5>Students in McCosh 50 while Professor David Miller teaches on Zoom</h5>
<h6>John Raulston Graham / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Students in McCosh 50 while Professor David Miller teaches on Zoom
John Raulston Graham / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

At a town hall on Jan. 5, University administrators stated that undergraduate students, including immunocompromised students, would not have the option of attending classes virtually. The policy also means that graduate students who work as teaching assistants or instructors will be required to teach in person. The University administration is ready to adopt a five-day isolation period for asymptomatic individuals should the New Jersey Department of Health’s guideline be amended to reflect the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. This is not only medically unsound, despite the CDC’s updated recommendation, but by some experts’ accounts, “reckless”

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We urge the University to offer online learning and teaching options for all undergraduate students, teaching assistants, and instructors, to protect immunocompromised and disabled undergraduates, graduate students, and staff. In addition, many graduate students and instructors live with or care for people who are at risk, such as young children, older people, and other vulnerable groups. Our lives are more valuable than Princeton’s desire to keep up appearances of a “normal” Ivy League semester. Simply put, that illusion is not worth dying for. 

We want to live and work at a university in which people receive the care and accommodations they need to live a safe and dignified life. Forcing students to make a choice between their learning or teaching job and their safety is a terrible policy. It is appalling that in proceeding with the plan for the spring semester. University administrators have repeated their commitment to in-person instruction, but have said nothing about a commitment to disabled and immunocompromised undergraduate and graduate students, those with caregiving responsibilities, and international students stuck elsewhere because of canceled flights and travel restrictions. 

The common refrain that the omicron variant is “mild” and “feels like a cold” is often used to justify the assertion that everyone will get COVID-19 eventually, and they’ll probably be just fine. For people with pre-existing conditions, those who are immunocompromised, and disabled people, this is not only callous but deadly logic, one which renders us disposable and at the mercy of those in power. Those of us who have had to struggle for years to receive accommodations at school and at work know all too well that allowing arbitrary discretion around COVID-19 safety rather than across-the-board accessible measures will leave us out in the cold yet again.

Since the fall, the University hasn't required quarantine after COVID-19 exposure for vaccinated individuals and is also not currently conducting contact tracing for all cases due to overload, according to the university website.  These relaxed measures lead to the on-campus environment being much more dangerous for immunocompromised people than the administration is suggesting.

We understand why University administrators consider in-person learning a priority. Those of us who take classes and teach students agree: In normal circumstances, it is vastly more enjoyable and pedagogically useful to talk with a group of students face-to-face about how to learn a new language, or interpret a novel, or conduct an experiment. But it is not worth the cost of our health or, once we “recover,” our ability to do everyday tasks or move about without running out of breath — only a few of the little-understood after-effects of COVID-19, known as post-acute sequelae of SARS CoV-2 (PASC) or “long COVID.” While omicron cases have led to lower rates of hospitalization and death, many long COVID cases begin with mild or even asymptomatic infections which develop into chronic illness months down the line. Moreover, cases have grown so rapidly that despite lower relative rates of serious illness, hospitalization rates in New Jersey have already surpassed the previous all-time high. Severe sickness is still a threat, and access to healthcare is seriously impacted.’

At the USG town hall on Jan. 5, students learned that faculty will have the flexibility to conduct classes online “if they or many of their students have COVID-19” (emphasis ours). In addition to this accommodation, to be made at faculty’s discretion, University Health Services (UHS) staff are providing telehealth appointments for routine medical care. These are good measures — they allow instructors the ability to respond to COVID-19 spikes and will help avoid flooding the UHS building with people who could be seen virtually. Importantly, these measures also minimize the risk to faculty and UHS staff. But this risk does not only affect faculty and UHS staff: Students and preceptors are also at great risk when forced to work indoors in rooms that cannot ensure social distancing. Online options at the discretion of faculty and online telehealth options for UHS staff are smart measures to maintain workplace safety. So why are they being offered to only some members of the University community and not to others? 

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If the University is allowed to bring the isolation threshold for individuals with COVID-19 from 10 days to 5 days, contagious students would come to class because they would have followed a University isolation guideline that the NJ Department of Health currently finds unsafe for higher ed institutions (at the time of writing). For graduate students working as preceptors on these courses, there is no way to ensure our own safety, or the safety of our students, if providing a remote option is entirely at the discretion of faculty members. Many graduate students wonder what will happen if they are forced to teach in person, in the middle of a spike in COVID-19 cases. Walking into work and worrying you’ll be bedridden within a week, or worse, is a horrible feeling and Princeton should care more about that than getting back to a ‘normal’ that doesn’t exist.

We understand that the situation may improve in the coming weeks. We also agree that in-person instruction can be preferable to Zoom, as far as the learning experience goes. There is no harm in providing online options across the board, so that if things improve, we can return to in-person instruction as we did at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, with some peace of mind. This makes much more sense than worrying about our health every second we are learning or teaching. 

Why force members of the Princeton community to make the choice between getting sick or missing out (with academic and financial consequences) when the alternative is offering an accessible and humane option? Other universities have made such accommodations, including the option to learn and teach remotely for anyone who requests it. 

We have the resources and the time to put a plan in place now for a safe and effective teaching and learning semester. Our health and safety matter. Princeton, start acting like it. 

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This article was written by members of the Princeton Disability Collective and Princeton Graduate Students United Coordinating Committee including Hannah Faughnan 23, Christopher Lugo 22, and Ellen Li 23. You can reach them at pdisco@princeton.edu.

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