By Tristan Lorei, contributor
Weeks before students return to Harrisonburg schools and universities for the first time since March, educators have begun implementing safety measures for classes to resume, which includes measures to help students with disabilities navigate the educational landscape amid the pandemic.
JMU, for instance, announced in June its plan to return to in-person classes by inserting three cleaning blocks during the day — twice in the morning and once at night. Face-to-face classes will proceed, especially for first-year students who will be on campus for the first time. Also detailed in the June 8 email announcement was plans to work with the Office of Disability Services to address specific accommodations for students and faculty.
That office, known on campus as ODS, serves students on an individual basis to ensure reasonable accommodations, whether they are aimed at mitigating learning disabilities or physical challenges. These accommodations vary per student but might include, for instance, allowing extra time for taking tests, or if the student has a hearing impairment, ODS would direct the student’s professors to provide closed captioning on videos for the class.
Instead of holding individual face-to-face meetings with students as ODS staff members usually do, they now will meet with students over Zoom or Webex to discuss accommodations for the fall.
Raja Abdul-Badee is a student at JMU who is registered with ODS. Abdul-Badee has retinitis pigmentosa, which is a rare disorder that causes the loss of sight over time. ODS provides her with extra time for tests, the ability to use her computer or phone during class and other accommodations to help with her classes.
Abdul-Badee said she isn’t concerned that the new fall schedule will affect her accommodations with ODS — but rather her other illness.
“My concerns are health concerns when it comes to my respiratory illness because I do have asthma,” Abdul-Badee said. “So, if I do get it, I will have to go to the hospital.”
Abdul-Badee said she plans to take as many classes online as she can for the fall semester to avoid making contact with people and to protect herself from getting COVID-19.
Valerie Schoolcraft, the director of disability services, wrote in an email to The Citizen that ODS has begun discussing plans for the new semester and how the safety measures will affect its students.
“Like all programs on campus, we are adjusting the delivery of our services to be able to meet physical distancing guidelines,” Schoolcraft wrote. “As in other spaces, we are employing signage and staggering staffing.”
For instance, students with hearing impairments often rely on lip-reading so having a teacher wear a mask would hinder their ability to learn in class. One example of a fix for this would be wearing face shields. These are clear plastic shields that are commonly used by healthcare workers and allow the whole face to be seen.
“If for some reason a mask will not work, then we will look at alternative protection options such as face shields,” Schoolcraft said. “We will be flexible to meet the needs of the people involved, accomplish the task, and ensure accessibility.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, classes and programs moved online, including programs for students with disabilities.
ODS has programs in place that provide easier access to classwork and materials via technology, such as its Accessible Media and Technology program. The AcMe program provides students with access to resources such as “accessible course materials” and technology to help them. This includes captioning videos — especially when it comes to online classes as well as increasing independent access to reading materials.
ODS has seen the demand for the AcMe program increase over the past few years and works to provide more options for independent access to certain materials.
“We also partnered with our colleagues in the Libraries to increase independent access to reading materials,” Schoolcraft wrote. “We were in the process of adding SensusAccess to the list of university resources at the same time the COVID news was unfolding. This service will make it much easier for students and faculty to have accessible materials regardless of the delivery methods for courses.”
City schools’s preparation
For Harrisonburg City Public Schools, the possibility of returning to in-person classes presents similar challenges.
Stone Spring Elementary, Waterman Elementary, Thomas Harrison Middle, Skyline Middle and Harrisonburg High School all have programs in place to accommodate needs of students with disabilities as they return to in-person classes.
In a statement to The Citizen after a phone interview, Michael Richards, the superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said district leaders have been working on addressing challenges and how they especially affect students who rely on one-on-one and in-person teaching. Under the plan, families of students with special needs will have the option of sending their children to school for up to four days each week. Other students will be limited to two days of in-person classes, according to that plan which the school board approved July 7.
“While all students are better served in personalized, in-person settings, this is especially true for many of our students eligible for special education services,” Richards wrote. “The HCPS Return to School Task Force has a Subcommittee that is planning for the most effective use of our buildings in providing instruction and related services for some of our most vulnerable students.”
Richards said school districts have “received essentially no guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which governs special education” but instead has relied on state guidelines as the district drew up its plan.
EMU has begun discussions as well to plan for in-person classes this fall. Steve Yoder, the coordinator of academic access at EMU, says that with new social distancing and mask-wearing policies in place, accommodations for students with disabilities will continue on an individual basis.
“Accommodations are always offered on an individual student basis,” he said. “I fully anticipate that new needs will emerge this fall as we continue in our hybrid online format that haven’t emerged before.”
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