Remote School Was a Lifeline for Chronically Ill and Disabled Students

·6 min read

Vera* and Viki* are medically vulnerable high school students going back to school at a public school in New York where there’s no remote school option for the fall semester. The only option to have remote schooling is if they actually contract COVID-19. There is an option to have in-home instruction via the New York public school system, but the pair said their experience with remote instruction is that it’s hard to get. The sisters will return in person, so Viki wonders if the needs of chronically ill students like her were adequately considered.

“Do they care?" she asked. "Every answer to that question is alarming to me. At school, you’re supposed to be safe.”

It’s difficult to feel safe in public, indoor settings amid the surge of the highly-contagious Delta COVID variant. While there are safe ways for many students to return to in-person learning, for chronically ill, disabled, or medically vulnerable students who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID and having complications, that feeling of safety is even more elusive.

Vera and Viki both have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting COVID, but their biggest fear is bringing the virus home to their medically vulnerable mother. Vera said it’s hard to prepare for the new school year when her overwhelming thought is: “let’s try not to get this illness and die or get Mom killed.” Still, the sisters don’t have a choice but to take the risk. “My hands are tied,” Vera said. “My mom’s hands are tied.”

“For [our school] at least,” Viki said, “it feels like they’ve ignored the fact that remote learning is a necessity for some students.”

But the debate between remote and in-person schooling isn’t a simple one. While remote options provide necessary accessibility for disabled or chronically ill students, fully remote school posed learning and mental health challenges for others. The benefits of in-person schooling are clear, but so are the drawbacks. The answer would seem to be to provide multiple options, but that’s not so simple, either.

Elena Silva, an education policy director at New America, said the short answer for why many schools aren’t offering remote options is “school districts have been challenged by this as much [as], if not more than, most institutions (except healthcare). We’re asking underfunded and under-supported schools to provide resources in two ways.”

Instead of in-person school, Blue*, a 19-year-old high school senior in Arizona who uses they/he pronouns, is going to an online charter school. Blue has had two kidney transplants and his body is currently in a phase of rejection of the second kidney. Because of their weakened immune system, Blue’s mother, Christine, has always taken Blue out of school during flu season. But now, the risk is simply too dire to risk going back to school in person. “Blue won’t survive COVID. I cannot risk them,” Christine said.“Their education is not worth their life. No one’s is.”

Blue is attending their senior year of high school through an entirely remote academy. Although they miss the social aspect of school, they prefer online learning. Instead of worrying about missing school for doctor’s appointments and hospitalizations, they can just log on when they feel well and get their work done. And, this way, they’re protected. “Online school has really helped me feel safer,” Blue said.

Christine feels alone in the fight to keep Blue safe. “It feels like I’ve been abandoned. It feels like people don’t care whether [Blue] lives or dies because their freedom not to wear a mask or get a vaccine supersedes [Blue’s] right to live,” Christine said. “The same people that would rally around us during a transplant are those that won’t get a vaccination.”

At one college in Iowa, students are required to be vaccinated and masked, but Chance*, a disabled student there, said that his biggest fear was realized soon after arriving on campus. “People simply weren’t following safety protocols,” he said. Enough students were ignoring the mask mandate that the Dean of Students sent an email urging students to “remain diligent." And there aren’t remote options for the fall semester, even for students like Chance who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the general population. “[My school] could have done a lot more,” Chance said. “Living with a seriously elevated risk of COVID complications and mortality, the past year has been traumatizing in ways I haven’t even fully begun to realize.”

For Alli*, a junior at a university in Washington who has spinal muscular atrophy, the lack of remote learning resources is disappointing but not surprising.

“Four-year institutions have always been elitist and inaccessible,” she said. “They cater to exactly one type of student. For students with disabilities, families, careers, and other extenuating circumstances, remote learning is more accessible. During pre-corona times, people like me were made to feel that online accommodations were impossible and now we know they’re not. Education needs to be made accessible for all.”

In signing up for classes for the fall semester, Alli was only able to find one online class out of the three she needed. She says the disability resource center at her university is working on official accommodations but that could take months – and in the meantime, it’s up to individual professors to offer accommodations. “Luckily, my two professors doing in-person classes are willing to work with me so I only have to come on campus once a week for an hour,” she said. But still, she’s worried: Even if she only goes to campus once a week, she’ll be exposed to thousands of students. With lungs weak enough that a common cold has landed her in the hospital, she’s terrified of contracting COVID and becoming one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who die from it.

While senior year is known to be a time of celebration and joy, Sandy’s*, 22, is marked by fear. She has chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia and uses a power chair. With her New Jersey university returning to fully in-person operations, Sandy is afraid she’s going to be left in the dust. “As a mobility-impaired student with energy limitations, I found that virtual classes suddenly enabled me to fully engage with my education,” Sandy said.

Before COVID, Sandy said she often missed more than half of her classes because of the stress and energy requirement of getting to class and sitting upright for hours on end.

Sandy’s worried that she’s going to be forced to take a medical leave of absence because of the lack of remote options. “I think it’s important to recognize that taking a medical leave is not easy and not feasible for a lot of people – financially, emotionally, or physically – and is in no way a valid replacement for accommodations. I think vulnerable students are being brushed aside so that the majority of students can pretend that life is normal again.”

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue