After more than a year of online classes, much of the Georgetown University community was excited to return to in-person learning and the immersive opportunities it provides. Students interested in science can once again work in labs, and discussion sections can occur without interruptions from unstable WiFi connections. While many students benefit from being back in the physical classroom, others, particularly those with health concerns, need virtual options to attend class or make up their schoolwork.
In an email sent to students Sept. 30, Vice Provost of Education Rohan Williamson stated that students should not expect to be able to virtually attend classes designated as in-person without an approved reason for doing so. Williamson added that faculty teaching in-person have been asked to accommodate COVID-19 related absences, but they are not required to provide students virtual attendance options.
Considering the on-campus presence of contagious disease outbreaks including norovirus and the flu, Georgetown must make its education accessible to all students by requiring faculty to offer online learning opportunities to all students who request to attend class virtually.
The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, and administrators cannot ignore its influence on physical and mental health. Students and faculty who are immunocompromised already face higher risks of illness, and attending class in person may create serious health ramifications for those individuals.
Students who do not feel comfortable returning to fully in-person instruction should not be forced to attend class at the risk of their health, according to Andrew Bialek (COL ’22), the Georgetown Disability Alliance advocacy co-chair.
“While the university maintains that illness may be an appropriate reason to seek an excused absence, it does not secure the right to not be present for those who, should they be present, would be putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation,” Bialek said in an interview with The Hoya.
Williamson’s email addresses the fact that many students have been concerned with the transition to in-person learning amid ongoing disease outbreaks.
“You should not expect that you will be able to participate synchronously (i.e., Zoom) in a class designated as in-person, nor should you assume that you may miss class and make up the material asynchronously without an approved reason for doing so,” Williamson wrote in the email.
While the Editorial Board understands the administration wants students to be as engaged with in-person learning as possible, Williamson’s announcement causes uncertainty among students with health concerns and compels students who did not test positive for COVID-19 but feel ill to attend class. Failing to recognize that students may prefer online learning as a safety measure is disrespectful, and students deserve an accessible educational model that trusts their best judgment.
The university might argue that requiring all professors to have online learning options would strain the university’s resources, but Georgetown has already prepared to make in-person classes accessible online to students who cannot be in the classroom. Provost Robert Groves announced that the university implemented technology in each classroom to accommodate hybrid learning in a Nov. 16, 2020 email to undergraduate students. This technology included upgraded cameras and audio as well as microphones for professors. Further, professors have taught online classes for over a year and though teaching a hybrid class is no doubt different from teaching an online one, faculty are familiar with the technology that allows students to engage in class virtually.
Much of the work to make classes accessible online has already been done. The university simply needs to make a final commitment to offering online engagement. Despite its progress, Georgetown is still committed to operating classes the way it did before the pandemic.
“Georgetown remains committed to in-person engagement this semester and asks that all students attend class in person,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We recognize that the return to the classroom has been an adjustment for everyone; we will continue to work to make students’ experiences in class as rich as ever.”
The goal of creating a rich educational experience for students is noble, but the university must recognize that for some students, this experience must include online learning options.
Although approximately 98% of students, faculty and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19, barring students from virtually attending classes designated as in-person ignores the very real mental health effects of the pandemic, including increased stress and anxiety, that may make students want to attend class over Zoom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth profound grief and loss, but we must learn from the tragedy. Returning to a business-as-usual model ignores all the progress made in the area of educational accessibility, and Georgetown should commit to upholding this progress.
The university must allow students to join and participate in class on Zoom to allow students the flexibility to decide which educational model works best for them.
The Hoya’s Editorial Board is composed of six students and is chaired by the Opinion editors. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.