The University Must Design Pandemic Policies That Work for Everyone

UChicago’s current COVID-19 policies regarding disability accommodations are inadequate, ableist, and lack the transparency needed to assess the validity of their claims.

By Galen Tsongas

Over the past few weeks, UChicago has rolled back its mask mandate, shifted testing to a voluntary model, and reinstated inter-dorm guest sign-in. The small, persistent relics of a pandemic––double-checking your pockets at the door for a mask and walking across campus to the Quad to spend several minutes hunched over a plastic tube––have vanished, replaced by warmer weather, greener leaves, and total abandon. It’s easy, now more than ever, to forget about COVID-19 altogether. For the most vulnerable members of our community, though, it’s impossible to forget about COVID-19. And that makes the University’s approach to COVID-19 surveillance and management deeply reckless. As a university committed to welcoming all people––including people with disabilities––the University’s policies regarding disability accommodations need complete reconstruction to fulfill the University’s professed commitment to accessibility, equity, and inclusivity. UChicago’s current COVID-19 policies regarding disability accommodation are inadequate, ableist, and lack the transparency needed to assess the validity of their claims.

The most drastic change on campus has been the masking policy. While the mask mandate has only recently been lifted, ineffectual masking policy existed far earlier than March. Masks only work if worn properly by everyone; I’ve never been in a class where masks are properly fitted or even worn for the full time period since students eat and drink in class. Several weeks ago, UChicago granted students and staff permission to take off their masks to talk based on guidelines from “medical professionals.” Now, the University has eliminated the indoor mask mandate altogether, even for unvaccinated individuals. Despite rising case numbers, masking policy remains lax, and UChicago Forward has opted to discontinue its weekly updates, electing to blame the increase in campus cases on individuals who come to campus sick, despite the fact that we know masks prevent the spread of transmissible diseases. While the University frames masking as a question of choice or opinion, this isn’t about choice or opinion at all; for many of us, it’s about life and death—a matter of protecting ourselves and our vulnerable loved ones. It’s absolutely disgusting that our obligation to protect our own health—and the health of those we care for—is reduced to a preference, as if wearing masks is somehow comparable to choosing to wear a jacket on a brisk spring morning.

In one statement on the Student Disability Services’ (SDS) Remote Learning Healthcare Questionnaire, SDS writes that “according to the assessment of UChicago Medicine epidemiologists and Facilities Services, the risk of the virus spreading in classroom spaces is extremely low due to the current masking requirements, institutional vaccination requirements, enhanced cleaning protocols, and the functionality of our HVAC systems.” There was no reassessment of masking policy after spring break, despite hundreds of students returning from domestic and international travels. The reality is that transmission risk has not decreased—the only thing that has is the threshold for what “risk” entails. Actively reducing proven measures is dangerous and threatens to undo the progress we’ve made, putting the lives of disabled and vulnerable community members at risk in the process. Eliminating masks signals that the University does not care about disabled community members and is willing to sacrifice them so that some semblance of normalcy can be attained by non-disabled people. The burden of responsibility is now on disabled people and individuals to wear masks just like it was at the very beginning of the pandemic, which turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

One needs look no further than the language used by SDS in their Remote Learning Health Questionnaire to get a fairly comprehensive grasp of the University’s priorities: convenience first and medical wellbeing second. Here’s a short sampling of some of the questionnaire’s most egregious questions:

“…please respond to the questions below if, in your medical opinion, in-person learning will pose a medical risk to your patient. Your assessment and recommendations should take into consideration the student’s vaccine status as well as the university’s vaccine mandate (with >90% vaccinated campus population) and safety measures.”

“Provide an assessment of the disability-related barriers to in-person learning which necessitate remote learning (rather than being a preferred, beneficial or optimal option).”

“Describe the health risks for being on campus factoring in the student’s vaccine status as well as the University’s vaccine mandate (with >90% vaccinated campus population).”

Why is a form asking for a medical dispensation framed in such a leading way? Why shouldn’t an optimal option to protect a disabled student be an appropriate reason for accommodation? This question in particular emphasizes that current accommodation policy is suboptimal by definition. If remote learning is optimal, then anything in-person is suboptimal, which emphasizes how little the University really cares about its disabled students. From a university that is engaged in social scientific work, this form is highly problematic as it is a thinly veiled refutation of a physician’s medical opinion a priori, rooted in the University’s arrogance and data that the public has no access to. When the University is willing to eliminate proven safety measures, this accommodation form becomes criminal because it essentially asks disabled students to acquire accommodations (that are often hard to acquire) or come to class where no protections are provided for them. For some, this may be a death sentence. Has the University considered this, and have they considered how eliminating masks will impact the disabled university community?

Lastly, this form applies only to students and specifically those with access to medical professionals who believe them. But students who live with immunocompromised families also have no ability to receive accommodations. When I asked the University why I could not receive accommodations to protect the life of my partner, I was only told that there is no policy in place. I have received no satisfactory answer outside of, essentially, “just because.” This is despite the fact that the University has the ability to allow remote options, and—after the early February snowstorm—gave instructors permission to go remote. Offers for remote learning are easy to provide and protect vulnerable populations, but the University’s arrogance and ableist stance is preventing this option. With a mask mandate ending, my partner’s life and those of other vulnerable community members are actively being threatened.

Proper masks and vaccines are effective. But we are dealing with a virus that mutates every few months, becoming more transmissible and continuing to cause long term disabilities. It is still a threat to immunocompromised people, vaccinated or not. At the very least, we shouldn’t eliminate proven safety measures that save lives. This is an unnecessary risk, and eliminating masking indoors is reckless. In a time when governors are now removing mask mandates, our disabled communities are once again thrown under the bus to accommodate the convenience of non-disabled people because the virus is now “just something we are going to have to live with.” Disabled people are put more at risk when we do less to protect each other. The University is unwilling to protect vulnerable people, and its stance is disgustingly ableist.

Disability should be believed and accommodated without question. The SDS accommodation form should not be phrased in such a leading way or set up to exclude optimal accommodations. This ableist form prevents accommodations that would protect disabled people and should be scrutinized and rewritten in line with disability justice. In an ideal world, when asked for accommodation to protect vulnerable families or ourselves, without an often hard to acquire medical diagnosis, the University should take that request at face value in order to protect those who need accommodation—anything less perpetuates ableist harm and inequality. Eliminating masks with a form that bars many from acquiring necessary or optimal protections is absolutely callous and reckless. It seems as if the decisions are being made using only a limited definition of disability, one where everyone who needs accommodations is assumed able to get them. This is just not based on any semblance of reality.

But what is so vexing about this lack of accommodation is that the University was willing to provide these accommodations at the beginning of the pandemic when non-disabled students were impacted, again at the beginning of the 2022 winter quarter, and again when there was a winter storm (within 24 hours). When non-disabled people are inconvenienced or put in harm’s way, the University jumps to do everything possible to accommodate them. But when asked to consider how their policies impact disabled people, and specifically immunocompromised individuals, we are met with radio silence, even after over 1,000 people signed a petition asking for the University to provide us with their data and expressed heartbreaking concern about loved ones put in harm’s way by the University’s stance. Immunocompromised people in particular do not have the luxury of relaxing protections when cases decrease, but the University treats everyone like a monolith, as if they have no underlying conditions and are 100% non-disabled, or as if we live on our own without immunocompromised partners and family. Instead of being treated as stakeholders, we’re being gaslit by the University and totally ignored.

Lastly, if the legitimate concerns of the University community continue to be ignored and dismissed—and ableism prevails without repercussion or amelioration—we need to rally to protect those who are most vulnerable and put more pressure on the University through media coverage and direct action until the University is held accountable for its ableist stances and rectifies them. I beg any students considering not wearing masks to continue to do so in order to protect others around you. I would also ask that instructors and departments resist the mask-optional policy, provide remote options, and require masks inside classrooms to protect lives. Anything less is complicity in an active perpetuation of violence against disabled members of this community. At the end of the day, the University needs to make sure its actions and policies protect everyone, not just non-disabled people. If the University does not, we must pick up the slack and do everything possible to protect disabled community members, even if that means disobeying the University.

Galen Tsongas is a Masters candidate in the Committee on International Relations (CIR) program.