ANUSA x DSA Campaign Against Return to Campus: Open Letter and Student Testimonials

The Disabilities Students Association (DSA) has recently written a letter jointly signed by ANUSA, condemning the mandatory return to campus. A summary of the letter can be found here and the full letter is included below.

Below the letter are multiple student testimonials about the positive impact online learning has had on members of the DSA collective.

 

To the Deans of ANU Academic Colleges and the ANU Academic Administration,

The Disability Students’ Association (DSA) and the ANU Students’ Association are highly concerned about ANU’s proposal to return to on-campus learning seemingly without regard for the effect on disabled and working students. The DSA does not condone a return to in-person learning in Semester 2 2022 that does not explicitly ensure that students who are immunocompromised, who live with disabilities, or who have work commitments are accommodated. The DSA is also concerned about the lack of communication about the processes and contingency plans that will alleviate or eliminate the possibilities of exclusion for immunocompromised and disabled students, as well as students with isolation requirements due to COVID-19 infection or close contact. The DSA highlights that this is not a decision taken by the other Group of 8 universities. The DSA points to the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney and their clear communication that hybrid and online learning options are continuing. 

The DSA notes that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the risks it poses, are far from over. COVID-19 cases nationwide and within the ACT are skyrocketing and only estimated to climb. Canberra is also in the middle of an influenza season that is widely known for its symptom severity, and which is disproportionately impacting the 15–19-year-old age group, which includes a substantial population of undergraduates. 

The easing of restrictions within the ACT and ANU is not an indication of relative safety or disease control. In many ways, it has made attending university and the outside world a more dangerous and fearful prospect for at-risk students, if not outright impossible. 

DSA and ANUSA representatives regularly hear from students that online learning options have been the only reason they have continued university. Students have described how online learning options have allowed them to participate in class, whereas previously their physical and mental health conditions made their commute impossible, let alone in-class participation. Online learning options have reduced the likelihood of contracting any illness, not just COVID-19, that poses serious threats to students’ health.

Students have also expressed at length how online learning has not just made it safe for them, but it is the reason they could continue university without jeopardizing the health of at-risk household members, family, friends, their children and those they care for.

 

There are several examples that we provide of students who are not accommodated appropriately in the proposed return to in-person learning plans:

  •       Immunocompromised students: students who are in danger of serious and/or long-term illness if they contract COVID should have full confidence that they will not have to expose themselves to danger in order to attain an education.
  •       Students with pre-exiting conditions: non-immunocompromised students with other pre-existing medical conditions, who nevertheless can expect more severe illness, and/or longer illness, and/or longer recovery time, and/or underlying condition flare ups, and/or heightened risks of developing long covid and other post-viral complications should they contract COVID. These students should have the same confidence that campus is safe if they are being forced to attend classes in person.
  •       Students who contract COVID during semester: If a student contracts COVID, the ACT Government requires 7 days of isolation. This means that a student may miss multiple in-person classes during the week that they are away. The University’s current position that missing a week of classes is in line with pre-COVID expectations misses the point that students should be able to have reasonable workarounds created should they be unwell. Students should not have their education suffer or have to risk infecting other students just to attend university.
  •       Students who are exposed to COVID or other infectious diseases during the semester: while current ACT guidelines do not mandate that close contacts isolate, it remains highly recommended that they minimise their movements in the community. As such, a student living in a house with four other students could reasonably be a close contact for 4 consecutive weeks. To attend class would be to place other students and staff at risk, but if the class is entirely in-person, then a workaround becomes necessary. This situation, while unlikely, replicated across an entire university and the up to four or five courses a student may take per semester can have massive effects on the efficacy of the university and the ability of students to undertake their education.
  •       Disabled students for whom online classes have allowed them to pace themselves through their fatigue, pain and/or other symptoms better such that they have seen an improvement in their condition over the past two years of online and hybrid learning: An important part of pacing is not pushing through pain and fatigue, as this leads to flare ups and longer recovery times. The commute in to campus for off-campus students, as well as the distance of some halls of residence from some parts of campus means that physical classes can be very inaccessible. Having hybrid classes, and that being practically accessible to students (students can decide to switch to online for some weeks at short notice with little barriers put in place) allows students to perform to their best and not have to choose between their education and their health. 
  •       Students with work commitments: many students, both postgraduate and undergraduate, have heavy workloads outside of university. The nature of the past two years, with a vast number of people losing their jobs or being unable to work due to health reasons, has led to an increase of students needing to work to support themselves or their families where they may not have previously. An entirely in-person schedule is therefore not feasible for these students, and having access to online options is vital to allow students to maintain both university and work commitments.

 

To remedy this situation and improve the learning conditions for staff and students across the ANU, the DSA and ANUSA present the following solutions:

  1.       A widely publicised response to the examples provided above for how students should proceed in different situations going into Semester 2. Each example above represents countless students who deserve to understand the best course of action that ensures their safety, their peers’ safety, as well as ensuring their success at university in an academic context. The DSA also understands that postgraduate courses offer substantially more online and hybrid options than undergraduate courses – all students deserve the same support and flexibility from their university.
  2.       All classes where it is feasibly possible should have one or more online options available for tutorial options. Online learning options means that a COVID-positive student can still participate if they are well enough, and that every student can make a choice to attend campus that is based on the health and safety of themselves and others. The DSA acknowledges that some learning is difficult to facilitate online e.g., some art and STEM classes. However, the DSA is not satisfied that adequate safety provisions have been made, or centrally communicated, in these cases. Among other measures, the DSA urges ANU to provide the staff and funding necessary to facilitate such classes in the largest spaces possible to allow for adequate and plentiful social distancing options and with extended and additional class times to reduce the number of students sharing the space.
  3.       Access and Inclusion should be widely promoted to both staff and students, including the range of reasonable adjustments available, such as flexible extensions, flexible tutorial participation grading options, alternative mechanisms for completing in-person class work, exam arrangements etc. Furthermore, the legal requirements of complying with EAPs should be regularly and clearly communicated to all course conveners. Accessibility and Inclusion should be central to the ANU’s ethos, and the communications of support for students with disabilities should be coming from the very top of ANU administration.
  4.       Free masks and RATs should be consistently provided by the ANU to all staff and students as they were in Semester 1. The DSA frequently heard from students that while the distribution was welcomed, there was not enough supplied to follow the health guidelines and to support poor and vulnerable students access to these items. If correctly worn and used, the supply of N-95 masks is inadequate. N-95 masks are the best mask option, and students and staff should have enough masks accessible to be used correctly and as their first option mask. The number of RATs provided also does not allow for regular testing, especially for students who are close contacts multiple times and will need to complete multiple tests per contact before re-joining the community Both provisions neglect extenuating circumstances where needs may be even higher. An adequate, regular and assured provision of RATs and N-95 masks encourages the ANU community to follow guidelines for testing and mask wearing and take health precautions that makes in-person learning safer.
  5.       CRS/CRN should be reintroduced for students who contract COVID during the semester or who are deeply personally affected by someone close to them contracting COVID.
  6.       Beyond 2022, decisions regarding matters as important as accessibility should be made and directed centrally by the ANU administration, not delegated to colleges and course conveners, so that clear information can be given to students in a timely manner through appropriate channels.

 

The DSA remains eager to see all students and staff protected at their university. As noted in many major media outlets, the ACT is entering a period of increased vulnerability to COVID infection, with rates of infection set to triple over July and August. The ANU must respond promptly to legitimate concerns for student and staff safety, and we urge the ANU to work with students to find a solution that addresses the re-emerging health crisis in the ACT over the coming months.

Yours sincerely,

Mira Robson and Maddi McCarthy

ANU Disabilities Students’ Association Co-Officers

Christian Flynn

ANUSA President

 

Student Testimonials

 

What does hybrid learning mean to you?

Hybrid learning has been essential for me for several different reasons over the past year. Firstly, I had severe glandular fever that lasted about four months last year, and there were many times during that illness where I couldn’t speak, eat, or get out of bed. Having online options meant I could keep up as best I could, and not let myself fall too far behind on coursework. If hybrid hadn’t existed, I would have had to drop out of the semester because there is no way I would have been able to get myself to classes. Zoom tutorials and lectures meant I could still communicate with classmates and staff via chat functions when I couldn’t speak properly, and I could still get participation marks.

Aside from that, I have ongoing mental health issues that can flare up at any time and that can make attending classes on campus impossible. On the days that I can’t get myself dressed or the days that I don’t have the energy to leave my room, having a flexible option is essential for me to engage with content. Without these options, I would miss weeks of content by the end of the semester, and I would definitely see my grades suffer. For so many people in our collective having these flexible hybrid options are essential for continued participation and success at university. 

Maddi McCarthy, DSA Co-Officer

 

As someone with multiple chronic illnesses and chronic pain, pacing has been majorly important in making sure I function and am not blowing my entire energy budget on avoidable things. Pacing is the idea that you are working within your limitations and not overdoing it so you don’t end up crashing or causing a flare up of symptoms. I get in my exercise in helpful ways like hydro instead of pushing my body to the limits in unhelpful ways like hiking. The commute into campus is physically quite demanding. It increases my fatigue, pain, and potential exposure to COVID-19.  I can tolerate commuting maybe three times a week for about six weeks at a time, but not more than that, and not if other things are going on which increase my baseline fatigue and pain (for example, med-switch-up, new symptoms, weather extremes, flare ups, injury, stress, etc.). Hybrid means I can easily make sure I stick to three commutes a week, or even try to reduce it to two sometimes so I don’t crash before the end of the term, or even at all if I can help it.

In simplest terms, online delivery during the pandemic is why I did not drop out in 2020 as I became progressively unwell. My week was split up into different days—shower day, grocery day, doctor’s appointment day, and the others were rest days by necessity. I would do my one activity and then need the whole of the day (and then some) to recover. I did 90 percent of my classes from bed, barely managed to stay awake through some of them, and the trip to the bathroom or kitchen in my hall of residence was enough to leave me so fatigued as to need to sleep. Having to walk to classes on campus, even a simple five minute walk each way, would have made me unable to study full stop. As it was, through a combination of online classes, very understanding lecturers, extensions, and a reality check and dropping a class, I made it through that semester having done well in my classes. It helped that my course content was a great distraction from all the medical information bombarding me—but the fact remains that it was online classes that facilitated my continued education.

Now that I am mostly diagnosed and partially onto good management plans, hybrid is the flexibility I need to adhere to my pacing without sacrificing my education. I can’t understate how great it is to know that the option of online is available to me, should I need it—and I hope it continues to be into the future, for both mine and others’ educations.

Mira Robson, DSA Co-Officer

 

 

As a person who is immunocompromised due to medication for an autoimmune disorder, I am prone to illness, and if I do get sick it tends to be a serious issue. Additionally, my pre-existing condition means that my capacity to travel between classes and uni is limited—I’m an off-campus student by necessity because the halls are a hotbed for infectious diseases. Online study has allowed me to participate in classes properly for the first time. I have gone from a C average with regular class dropouts to a HD average. My health has been massively improved because I haven’t had to be exposed to diseases, and because I haven’t had to spend all my spoons just getting into school, I have been able to both apply myself fully to my studies and participate in extracurricular activities and volunteering while still being able to look after myself.

I have been here for 5 years, the last two have been life changing. Please don’t take away this extremely important accessibility measure.

Saf Bannister

 

Letters to the Editor