Making Education Accessible for All
- Students who contract COVID or deal with disabilities need flexible options for attending class.
- MBA candidates at Georgetown surveyed grad students and undergrads about the kinds of accommodations they needed—and did and didn’t get.
- School officials, faculty, and students worked together to create new protocols designed to aid anyone who can’t attend in-person classes.
I began my MBA journey at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C., in the middle of a pandemic in 2020. Since that time, I have seen my learning experience shift slowly from all-virtual to in-person. The transition was a team effort for sure, with faculty and students coming together to improve learning environments.
I have always found it remarkable that the school is so open, agile, and innovative when it comes to working with students who need accommodations. The school’s official stance is that accommodations are individualized according to the demonstrated needs of the students and the nature of their courses. Even so, as the school reverted to in-person instruction, some students with disabilities encountered challenges.
For instance, first-year student Genevieve Enowmbitang suffers from several health conditions—including postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)—that, at times, render her unable to physically attend classes. When school officials would ask how they could help her, she says, “I would respond, ‘I just want to go to class, I just want to go to school. I want access to the resources that I’m paying for.’”
She requested to be allowed to attend classes on a flexible basis, both online and in-person, depending on her current state of health. But she found it challenging to navigate the system and determine what was expected of her and of her professors.
Just before midterms during Enowmbitang’s first semester in business school, there was a COVID-19 breakout in her cohort. She quickly realized she wasn’t the only student wishing for more flexible options to attend class.
“Those who had COVID weren’t allowed to come to school, and as a result, they were not allowed to take their midterms,” Enowmbitang says. When she met with one of the affected students, Collin Kee, she learned that he had found it difficult to keep up with his coursework when he was infected with the virus. In fact, his experiences mirrored the ones she’d had while living with a disability.
Enowmbitang and Kee eventually joined forces with a third student who also had a personal stake in improving campus accessibility. Rio Dennis has a younger brother with a learning disability who requires accommodations at a different university. Together, the three MBA students began working with the school to improve accessibility provisions at McDonough.
I immediately knew I wanted to tell their story. As a former reporter for the news agency Reuters, and as someone who helped shape the communications strategy for Samsung Electronics during the pandemic, I understood the importance of communicating, particularly around the topics of health and well-being.
Disconnected Learning Experience
Last October, Enowmbitang, Kee, and Dennis took the first step in improving accommodations at the business school by crafting a survey asking students about their experiences. The trio had originally planned to target just MBA students. However, because Kee and Dennis were involved in GradGov, the greater graduate school student government at Georgetown University, they were able to circulate the survey to all graduate students and some undergraduates.
There were 418 responses. Sixty-one percent said they had missed class during the fall semester of 2021, with short-term health issues being the top cause. Additionally, 42 percent of respondents said that, due to the school’s attendance policy, they had attended class while feeling physically sick.
Sixty-one percent of students had missed class because of short-term health issues. Additionally, 42 percent had attended class while feeling physically sick.
Among McDonough respondents, 17 percent said they had no asynchronous options to keep up with coursework. Available virtual options greatly varied from class to class, with students often having to reach out to professors beforehand to coordinate asynchronous access.
In addition to asking quantitative questions, the survey offered students a chance to write in comments. Dennis says the results were “very eye-opening” as they revealed how disconnected some students were feeling.
“Returning to class one week before midterms after two weeks of mandatory quarantine (16 missed classes), it was absolutely critical for me to have virtual resources,” wrote one student. “Instead, I only had PowerPoint slides to learn from. The virtual class recordings that were available were hardly audible or visible—professors’ voices would come and go as they moved around the room, and any student questions were completely inaudible.”
Another wrote, “The professors could exhibit more of a compassionate manner when responding to requests for accommodation. Not all of us are trying to skip class and [some of us] are legitimately ill.”
When school officials learned of the survey’s findings, they were quick to initiate discussions with the students. Kee observes that he has learned that accessibility is a multifaceted issue.
“It’s not just about the students,” he says, noting that professors and administrators also feel pressure. “So we’ve been asking ourselves, how can we balance all of those interests and make sure that students are being supported? And that’s tricky.”
Changes at McDonough
After the survey results were shared last fall, McDonough updated its protocol on remote access requests for class content. Although the default expectation is that students will attend classes in-person on campus, students can receive one-off, case-by-case COVID-19-related accommodations.
Lauren Jordan, a second-year MBA student who has an autoimmune disease, has been reassured by the COVID policies Georgetown already has in place. “The vaccination requirement and the random COVID-19 testing has made me feel safe,” says Jordan. She is also reassured by the fact that the school frequently publishes its COVID numbers, and the numbers have remained low.
While the current policies will remain in effect, the school is expanding options. Students with strong, well-documented reasons for extended accommodations may be granted remote access for longer periods of time, according to the school’s official communication in February.
The process for receiving accommodations is quick and simple. Students fill out a form detailing what dates they will be missing in-person classes, and they attach documentation. Faculty promptly are notified by McDonough staff.
There is a difference between schools that are merely compliant with regulations and schools that are committed to making classes accessible and convenient for all students.
McDonough has identified six situations in which it anticipates students will require compassion, support, and flexibility. These include times when students are ill, immunocompromised, or caring for young children who are facing disruptions at their schools because of the virus.
Professors still can determine the extent to which they will accommodate virtual attendance and assess class participation. However, officials have encouraged faculty to allow students to join classes via Zoom or give students access to recorded webinar sessions. They also have requested that faculty offer alternative ways for students to participate in discussions and make other contributions in class. More professors have started wearing microphones in class so there will be improved sound quality on their class recordings.
Enowmbitang says she feels very encouraged about the results so far, as the program office has been receptive to the students’ suggestions. “The deans are aligned to providing short-term virtual access to all students impacted by health issues to cover short-term needs,” she says. “In the long-term, more significant changes to how we meet accommodations and virtual accessibility will need to be set at the university level.” She expects GradGov will continue to advocate for better resources to assist students and train faculty.
The student activists are still considering what their next steps should be, because they must wade through “so many layers in the school’s current bureaucracy process,” says Dennis. “We really want to make sure there’s a bit more communication on how people are approved for accommodations. There shouldn’t be any discrepancy causing issues with student experiences.”
A Strategy for Other Schools
As I worked with the student advocates, I realized that there is a difference between schools that are merely compliant with regulations and schools that are committed to making classes accessible and convenient for all students. The institution should be the one addressing the latter task—not the students who are attending business classes while managing the challenges posed by their own disabilities.
Based on my observations, I believe other schools could take seven steps to improve accommodations on their campuses:
- Hold regular town halls to gauge student opinions.
- Conduct anonymous surveys to gain student insights.
- Create handbooks and guidelines to improve efficiency and make the process easier.
- Provide a safe space where students can exchange information on disabilities and where they can share feedback with administrators.
- Ensure that faculty are properly trained on accommodations that are different than the ones offered by an academic resource center.
- Get in touch with students at the point of matriculation to discover how the school can make accommodations for their disabilities.
- Prepare ahead of time. One place to start is to benchmark the ways other schools make education accessible to disabled students.
If schools listen to what their students need, everyone will benefit—not just students with disabilities, but those who face short-term health issues or crises at home. The school also will become a place where everyone feels welcome and everyone has access to educational resources.