For students returning to School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) this fall, the panic before add-drop is especially nerve-wracking. Situations of students range widely, but an often-forgotten sector of the school’s student population are those who cannot return to campus this semester due to their medical preconditions.
Immediately, I knew that in-person classes would not be an option for me. I discussed the prospects of returning to campus with my allergist while we began to document my asthma for the Disability and Learning Resource Center (DLRC). If she had recommended I have someone get my groceries, how was I supposed to regularly attend school?
To answer the needs of students such as myself, SAIC created class space reserved for high-risk students. However, due to inter-departmental miscommunications, some high-risk students were left unable to access this valuable resource.
The Dean’s Office took initial steps to create class space for high-risk students as well as students working with Academic Advising who were unable to attend classes on campus. To begin this process, they first reached out to the DLRC on June 10 to create a list of high-risk students.
After the Dean’s Office proposed the high-risk class space, the DLRC was tasked by the Dean’s Office to do outreach to students that they believed would benefit. Of the 800 students the DLRC provides resources for, only 91 students made the DLRC’s high-risk list. The list was based on what the CDC defines as high-risk preconditions, such as asthma, hypertension, type II diabetes, or being otherwise immunocompromised.
The identified students were contacted by DLRC staff. But some, such as Kizer Shelton (BA VCS 2021), a student at high risk of COVID-19, said they were left out of the program due to how outreach was conducted, even though their qualifying conditions are documented by the DLRC.
During outreach and at the DLRC’s direction, advisors touched base with students to collect information throughout the summer. According to Germain, students were told to contact Academic Advising to receive the high-risk class space during this time. Once the list of high-risk students was compiled between the DLRC and Academic Advising, class schedules were created according to the needs of students and the departments that classes were created in.
On July 24, as none of the high-risk classes were full, they opened remaining slots to the wider community as online and hybrid class modes. As of late August, six non-first-year high-risk classes were full, and 13 were still open.
Initial language barriers left confusion on how the program would be enacted. The list was at times referred to as “Priority Registration,” a separate accommodation where students are granted early registration time. This also gave the impression to some that high-risk students would be able to register early.
Michael Orr (BFA 2021), a high-risk student on the list, was unclear what had happened to the program after their first conversation with St. Germain about it. He did not utilize the program.
“I check in with the healthcare manager every week, but discussion of priority registration just seemed to stop after that meeting, which I thought was kind of strange. So when it came to registration time I had that question in the back of my head, ‘When am I going to get a notice?’” Due to flexibility in the Animation department, he will be able to work remotely for modified in-person classes this semester.
Balancing so many variables was difficult for such a small department. On coordinating the program between the DLRC and Dean’s Office, St. Germain said, it “truly is a moving target. Every time something was figured out, it has to be changed.” The DLRC has four full-time staff members for the 800 students that rely on its resources. The added program, during a time of crisis, exacerbated the already strenuous workload.
Kizer Shelton, a high-risk student who was not included on the list, has had difficulty registering for classes. Many of the teachers they admire have taken sabbaticals, and are also high-risk. For Shelton, “finding classes is more important now than ever.” They have had issues registering due to issues with intermedial classes that require credit skipping, and coordinating between professors — and in August, some classes still had professors to be announced. When speaking about waiting for professors to be announced, they commented, “as someone with disabilities, I can’t afford it.”
Both Jake Linn (BFA FVNMA 2021), President of the Student Advocacy Alliance for Health and Disability (SAAHD), and St. Germain both emphasize the importance of self-advocacy. St. Germain said that students “don’t tell us until they are really, really struggling. Students are reluctant. It’s about self-advocacy. A lot of students don’t know what that looks like. If there is ever a question, reach out. SAAHD is working with the Wellness Center and has panels about working on self-advocacy.” She also pointed out that they are restricted to only helping those who do reach out.
On the other hand, Shelton brought up, “I’ve had teachers try to fight me [on accommodations] and especially with COVID, I don’t have time to do that self-advocacy. I just need what I need to be successful in class.”
Now, students are being asked to juggle the unthinkable, and for disabled students, there is an added expectation of advocacy for their accommodations.
During the week of July 24, while registration was open, half of my immediate family had been diagnosed with COVID, and the other half was possibly exposed. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. By the time July 24 had rolled around, I was still unaware of any information pertaining to high-risk registration. It felt as if I had slipped through the bureaucratic cracks. After hastily grabbing online classes at 8 a.m., I was too emotionally drained to confront anything related to school, much less to tackle the discrepancies in information I was receiving.
While I was managing phone calls between family members, trying to figure out case workers and quarantine, it felt as if the school’s lack of communication was being left on my shoulders to manage. Although it is necessary to have active communication for accommodations, the self-advocacy model requires time as well as physical and mental energy from the disabled students. Especially now, time and energy is a privilege, making access to resources such as the high-risk list, a privilege.
Shelton offers advice on how the DLRC can grow its outreach: “In this case, they could have used software for mass emails. In terms of prioritizing students, some departments have made websites. They [SAIC] pay for Canvas, Google, so I feel like there is no excuse for individuals working in the cluster, even the small DLRC, for not implementing things by themselves. They are, of course, understaffed, underpaid, and created a new office not anticipating COVID. As a place that cares for so many other students, they need more resources.”