Accommodations for remote students during fall 2021 remain unclear

Image of student on Zoom
Momoka Sasaki/File
In a campuswide email, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ noted that the fall 2021 semester is planned to take place primarily in person. Christ added in the email that additional information for remote students will be released in April.

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UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced that the upcoming fall semester’s default mode of instruction will be in person. However, details on accommodations for students unable to return — including those with disabilities or those who are abroad — were largely left up in the air.

All plans are dependent on public health guidelines and conditions as the start of the semester approaches, Christ noted in a campuswide email. Christ added that more information for remote students will come in April.

“It is unknown at this time whether and to what extent a remote instructional option will be available to students,” Christ said in the email.

As a result, Christ urged international students to appraise possible paths forward with the Berkeley International Office. Additionally, the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, will work with students with disabilities one by one to assess their instructional needs.

UC Berkeley’s aspirations for an in-person semester may be detrimental to these students, said Nate Tilton, disability lab manager at the Berkeley Disability Lab, especially students with disabilities. While the past year of remote instruction has brought on difficulties, the shift to Zoom brought a trait to all classrooms that students with disabilities have earnestly been asking for: accessibility.

“With all the problems Zoom has had, there is a certain level of accessibility it grants as well,” Tilton said. “A lot of disabled students have been fighting for this for a long time, and they are finally able to do it because everyone needs it now.”

Tilton added that although Zoom has its flaws, such as its issues with closed captioning, learning online brought flexibility to classes, as well as a collaborative online community.

For example, Tilton described how DSP granted him a note-taking accommodation but was unable to connect him to a note-taker. However, the availability of open-source notes in one of his classes bridged that accessibility gap.

Karen Nielson, DSP executive director, said in an email that the dedicated DSP staff are meeting with students over the phone or Zoom to provide whatever accommodations they can in the online environment, such as supplying captions and accessible digital documents. Nielsen added that remote accommodations would carry into the fall semester.

“At DSP we will be working with students with documented disabilities to determine the appropriate accommodations for the individual student,” Nielson said in the email. “An accommodation can be any reasonable adjustment to a class or a service so long as it does not change the objectives of the course.”

Nielson also directs students looking for accommodations to the DSP website, where they can apply for services. Tilton noted that students with disabilities have struggled to get their hands on the resources that they have been slotted for by DSP.

Tilton cited extensive campuswide burnout and difficulties in connecting with instructors as possible drivers of the problem but does not fault staff or faculty, as everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is important, according to Tilton, is if the able-bodied campus community will retain this difficult memory of limited access and feeling overwhelmed once in-person instruction resumes.

Tilton emphasized that able-bodied people should not be afraid to continue social distancing, wearing masks and being allies for the disabled community. This includes those with physical disabilities, who face UC Berkeley’s physically inaccessible environment, and other students whose disabilities may unexpectedly flare up after they return.

“We just go back, and for a lot of people, it’ll just be normal again,” Tilton said. “But I hope people remember what this experience was like. … A lot of us were living this COVID life long before everyone else was, and we’re going to be living it a lot longer afterward, too.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.