Coronavirus News Roundup for April 13

Everything you need to know for the week ahead about higher ed and the coronavirus in one easy-to-read package (with some distractions to help your sanity). Plus, a special Q&A on students with disabilities.

April 13, 2020
 
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Another week!

The news is not much better than it was before. But we do have a special feature for you today. I talked with Stephanie Cawthon, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes. We discussed the challenges students with disabilities are facing right now and what institutions should be doing to respond to them. You'll find that Q&A below. We plan to include these special features in each Monday edition of the daily roundup going forward.

But first, some palate cleansers. My roommates and I recently started fostering this perfect puppy, Kane, from the Humane Rescue Alliance.

Speaking of dogs, this broadcaster is still narrating his own pups' activities like very serious sporting competitions.

And since it's getting sunnier outside, you can try creating your own victory garden if you have the space.

Now to the news.

The Association of American Medical Colleges is calling for a national standardized data collection system so researchers can accurately get information about the race, ethnicity, social conditions and environmental conditions of patients infected with COVID-19. The pandemic is bringing to light disparities and inequities between different populations in the U.S.

Some civil liberties groups are asking the U.S. Department of Education to not delay the release of proposed federal Title IX regulations, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Putting student tutoring online might seem like one of the easier challenges for higher education right now. But a survey found that some institutions are struggling with tech and training.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):

Federal stimulus funds are coming soon for higher education. At least that's what Betsy DeVos says. Kery Murakami has the story.

If you're curious, here's a searchable database Rick Seltzer made on how much institutions are expected to receive.

We've already reported on hiring freezes. Now institutions are using furloughs to rightsize their budgets, Emma Whitford reports. Colleen Flaherty also has a story on what non-tenure-track faculty are doing as the risks to their careers mount.

After spring comes summer. And those programs are increasingly going online due to COVID-19, Elizabeth Redden reports.

News From Elsewhere

Some college students are returning home to their parents. That's not always going smoothly, The New York Times reports.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on what faculty and institutions are doing as students get infected with the virus.

Percolating Thoughts

This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.

An investor predicts that future generations, scarred by this pandemic, won't buy in to expensive universities if they don't have a clear path to employment.

The president of a private liberal arts college ponders whether the coronavirus pandemic will kill institutions such as his.

Young Invincibles talked with some college students in Texas about their experiences during this crisis.


Thanks for sticking around. As promised, below you'll find my Q&A with Stephanie Cawthon, of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes and the University of Texas. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Q: What are the biggest challenges students with disabilities are facing right now?

A: I really resonate when people say, "This is not best practices in online teaching. This is best practices in online teaching during a pandemic with very little time to plan." So really thinking about, what are the pain points that people are experiencing? From the perspective of students with disabilities, it’s thinking about that transition from, these are the strategies and accommodations and supports, official or unofficial, that I use in a face-to-face setting. Now I’m moving to an online setting where some of those things need to be rethought, but the landscape is changing very quickly and the time frames are very short.

One of the main challenges is wondering what the target is in terms of what does a learning environment look like. For example, you may have a specific accommodation or support -- I’ll use interpreters as an example for deaf students -- in a face-to-face setting. What are the face-to-face interactions that you’re experiencing in an online platform, and what are the ways in which the technology tools need to be connected to what those accommodations and experiences look like?

Broadband, access to computing -- these are things that affect everyone, but they affect access in a very specific way for students with disabilities. Think about the compounding effects of what happens when everyone is on Zoom at once and your call drops or your translator goes away. We’re noticing that shift is a challenge. Knowing what it is you’re trying to accommodate can be a challenge because faculty are often having to make up new assignments or new ways of engaging with students.

If we’re looking long-term, having set strategies on if you are converting from one platform to another, from face-to-face to online, what are the steps that need to be taken? It’s a good opportunity for institutions in general to think through, in a platform change, what are the access and accessibility questions that become embedded in that planning?

The second thing is to recognize there are many students with disabilities who don’t disclose and don’t go to a disabilities services office at the beginning of the year. They’ve figured out strategies for a face-to-face environment, but now that we’re online, those strategies may not work. For me, for example, I’m hard of hearing myself, and I would always just go sit in the front of the room and that would be one of my primary strategies for access in some situations that would work. That may not work in an online setting where it’s videos that don’t have captioning.

We are seeing some issues of isolation. Students with disabilities, they’re missing their peer networks. Those peer networks are often where you have what you think of as social capital. How did you navigate this situation? When you’re taken out of your face-to-face settings, you’re also often taken out of your social context, and that social context is a resource for many students, but especially students with disabilities. We are seeing some concern that the students need to be networked with each other and strategizing with each other.

Q: Why did colleges not have some of these plans in place?

A: I can’t respond for every institution and every administration, but I do think there’s a sense that any transition plan that we had in place was for short periods of time. Certainly nothing that would impact an entire semester, certainly nothing that would be looking at an overall trajectory of a students’ entry into or exit from an institution. I think this is providing us some better opportunities to think about how do we become more flexible?

In disabilities in education, we talk a lot about what we call universal design or accessible strategies. It’s not so much focused on the tools, which is where we see most people right now. That’s very much a response to something that’s an issue right now, but it doesn’t think back to the design of the learning in the first place. What I would encourage people to do is look at a couple of things.

You’re looking at, what does accessible learning mean when you are using different environments, but also when you have different types of ways that people can use material. The books on disability in education and accessible design and even architecture have been talking about this for years. You have an on-ramp versus steps. Those are two different ways into a building.

So when we think about how our learning environment is now a primary online environment, what are different ways to use those tools to provide multiple options for response? That flexibility in design can really help make these transitions easier if we have to do them in the future. So faculty thinking about what are some different ways I can assess students’ understanding of a specific topic? Do they always have to write a paper? Maybe not. Maybe someone can make a video, someone can write a paper, someone can design a lesson plan to teach that content to other students.

Q: What will happen if this mode of teaching continues into the fall?

A: I think the opportunity is there. Maybe it won't be 100 percent online, but we might at least intermittently at a local level be online, I think that’s a reasonable expectation. I think students are doing a really good job of advocating and saying, "Hey, make sure you keep us in the loop."

I think faculty are learning a lot. I think the summer prep period will be really important for faculty to lean on some of the resources knowing that we may go online for longer periods of time. I don’t see people sitting back and taking things lightly, so I think that actually gives me some hope.

When they’re aware of the issues and when they do have students with disabilities in their classes, I see most faculty being very responsive and at least trying to figure out where things fit in this paradigm. My expectation is that, over the summer there will be conversations with students about their disabilities services accommodations letter -- the letter that goes to faculty and says, "This is the list." That list might be expanded, that list might be contextualized. If we’re going online, this is the list; if we’re face-to-face​, this is the list.

Q: Do you think this series of events could lead to students with disabilities dropping out?

A: There are a number of factors that influence retention and enrollment for all students. One thing to remember is for students with disabilities, it compounds. It’s more expensive, often, to have a disability and to do the things that need to be done to function and navigate an able-bodied environment.

What we tend to see is that navigating a university environment with a disability takes energy, it takes advocacy, and those things take away from energy that is available to do other things, including schoolwork. The extent to where that tips in one way or another is where I would expect to see some further questions raised about if this online experience is really challenging and I’m not getting the information I need, and that’s where we’re going, maybe I’ll make a different choice.

What’s good in terms of access for people with disabilities is good for everyone. Captions on videos are good for everyone. The extent to which we can all become more familiar with and used to making sure that’s part of a video that you play in class, maybe that becomes more part of the culture, that we have a more accessible learning culture.

If vocational rehabilitation budgets get cut further, there will be fewer resources available for students who use those resources to go into postsecondary training. That would be one of the areas of concern that’s not directly related to how well did the institution look at access issues.

Q: Can you talk about that further?

A: The one I’m thinking of particularly is RSA -- the Rehabilitation Services Agency. Students with disabilities can apply for funding support for postsecondary training and education. It was originated looking at veterans.

Those funds have what’s called an order of service typically. Not everyone is eligible for everything if we’re in a budget crunch. A lot of those budgets shrunk in the recession of 2008, and many of them were not recovered. Any time you see an overall state budget decrease, you typically see the order of service criteria become stricter.

Q: What do students who have disabilities need the most to succeed from institutions?

A: Within the National Deaf Center, we define deaf in a very inclusive manner. We talk about deaf, we talk about deaf-blind, we talk about hard of hearing.

The reason I mention that is one thing institutions can recognize is that it’s very much a case-by-case basis. It’s not one size fits all. So if you have a strategy that works for one student, it may not be the right fit for another student. We really would recommend engaging with your students, finding out what they need, because in all cases it’s probably going to be a variety of things.

Advice No. 2 is to make sure public announcements are all accessible. If you put it on Twitter, put captions on it, put alt text on your images. If we’re really relying on these digital communications, and we are, make sure that they are fully accessible at all times. Model that so your faculty can see that’s the institutional culture. This is our practice, this is not just something we think of when somebody requests it.

The third thing I always come back to is this phrase: access is not just accommodations, it’s really a viewpoint. So you consider things like disability in your diversity statements. That may seem like a small thing, but it sets the tone, it sets the expectation for everything else to flow through that.

Q: Are you worried that budget cuts will affect disability services at campuses?

A: I’m certainly concerned about a reduction in services. Often those budgets are flat, often those budgets have not been responsive to the influx of students with disabilities on campus.

The disabilities services budget doesn’t always respond to what we see as an increase in that, especially when we’re looking at specialized training programs. There is a concern that the accommodations budget won’t continue to be considered. That’s partly why I go back to how do we define diversity on our campus? If disability is within that, maybe the budgets will continue to be aligned with that.

Q: Anything else you'd want to add?

A: Just remembering staff and faculty as also people with disabilities is an important consideration. How they’re adapting to this change and how they’re working within these transitions is a question that is an important one to ask.

Also, to realize that teaching and learning in an accessible format is going to benefit everyone.


Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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