University should carry pandemic-era accessibility lessons into the future
The fall 2022 semester has finally begun. With it comes many changes to the University’s COVID-19 protocols. This is the first semester since the pandemic began without mandatory, high-frequency testing for students, faculty, and staff. The Campus Passport system has been retired completely. Also, the administration no longer requires faculty to follow certain pandemic-era classroom protocols, such as providing a remote classroom option for students.
In an Aug. 22 email to students, Provost Carol Fierke announced these changes, including a new process in which the Health Center provides students with a letter as documentation of an illness that can then be given to professors. This new system will not be in place until Sept. 1 and only applies to students who can provide an official diagnosis. It is not clear if the professor must exempt the student from class after being given this letter. In her email, Fierke said, “faculty have been encouraged to return to previous absence/make-up policies, which could be more generous or have an explicit exception for students who are required to isolate.” This new system that only “encourages” faculty to accommodate health issues is vague. It eliminates COVID-19 classroom policies and options for students — such as remote and hybrid learning — that made our school more accessible. Similarly, current masking policies were poorly communicated to students, faculty, and staff. Because the University began the semester in stage “Yellow,” masking is required in all classes, as well as gatherings with more than 20 attendees. This policy was included as part of a general communication introducing the new color system. No separate email was sent outlining the specific masking policies. Following mass confusion on the first day of classes, an email clarifying the policy was sent on Aug. 26. Such an important policy should have been communicated more clearly to the community prior to the start of classes.
This is not the first time this board has called for greater accessibility and accommodations in the classroom. In a previous editorial from September 2021, this board asked the University to retain certain pandemic-era policies that increased accessibility. These policies created a more holistic, inclusive learning environment not only for students with a temporary illness but also for any community members with disabilities.
Despite calls for the administration to maintain these policies, the University has instead reversed course, encouraging faculty to return to pre-pandemic policies. As much as we all want to put the pandemic behind us, to ignore valuable lessons from Brandeis’ COVID-19 era is irresponsible, and it could harm students who have benefited from the more accessible learning environment of the last two years.