Opinion: What it’s like being an immunocompromised student at AU
Accommodation policies and apathetic attitudes effectively communicate that immunocompromised students should either leave campus or not apply in the first place
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2023 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Editor's note: this story contains references to ableism and eugenics
“American University does not offer COVID-19 accommodations.” I’ve heard this a million times from administrators. This is the first semester to begin without mandated coronavirus precautions in classes since the pandemic started. As an immunocompromised student, it has made safely attending AU nearly impossible.
Immunocompromised students are left fighting for scraps of safety and contemplating whether we should be enrolled at all. According to the American Medical Association, 2.7 percent of the population is immunocompromised. Applied to AU’s enrollment population, that would proportionality be 401 students silently scavenging for professors and classmates who respect their right to survive the education they paid for when AU’s policies do not.“If a member of our community asks others to mask when in close contact with one another, please treat these requests with respect and give them full consideration,” is the only line addressing immunocompromised students in each email lifting COVID-19 precautions. This is also the advice I’m given in personal emails with Bernard Schulz, the project manager for AU’s coronavirus response. There is no portion of any University correspondence about the coronavirus directing immunocompromised students to accommodations.
Every semester, I’ve tried to get accommodations from the Academic Support and Access Center, but a current doctor must provide a diagnosis and make recommendations for ASAC to provide accommodations. Here’s the problem: I don’t have a doctor because even medical offices have removed coronavirus precautions. My medical records are all over the place from moving. I cannot afford to run diagnostic tests again. The Student Health Center can’t provide the recommendations. The list of hoops to jump through puts official accommodations out of reach. But even if I could get them, as the Dean of Students Office and ASAC have told me, “AU does not offer COVID-19 accommodations.”
The Dean of Students Office told me in several meetings, though, that professors are allowed to provide unofficial accommodations. “Good news!” I thought. Except every professor I’ve asked has said their department head will not allow them to require masks or allow virtual attendance. The University has made sure immunocompromised students are blocked from safety at every turn. I am only kept safe by those willing to break the rules.
The past three semesters have started the same. I plan every class possible. I check Rate My Professors, looking for signs that the faculty aren’t too strict of rule followers. I email each professor the following, with hyperlinks to immunology journals and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations:
Each of these are responses I’ve received:
“I require masks in class for this reason!”
“You can reach out to ASAC for accommodations.”
“I’m an adjunct, so I can’t bend any rules, as I might lose my job.”
“I will not be requiring masks in class. Hope this helps.”
When a professor is unwilling to teach me safely, I have to drop the class, even ones I desperately wanted to take. Lots of professors, luckily, do work with me. I’ve had professors who require masks the entire semester or give me a Zoom link. Some let me do the readings and assignments at home and have meetings during office hours instead. These accommodations are against AU’s rules. Everything that has made AU navigable as an immunocompromised student has been in spite of University leadership and policies.
This semester, the School of Communication has helped me. My last two classes in SOC were moved from small, windowless rooms with little ventilation to McKinley 100, an all glass room with two small rooms off to the side. I sit in one of those, 10 feet away from the nearest student.
I am grateful for the faculty members who pulled the strings to make this exception for me. This was a kindness, but not every class can be moved, nor is every department willing to help. University-wide policies make this support impossible to implement on a larger scale. Refusal to require masks or allow virtual attendance as an accommodation has made physical segregation the best-case scenario.
“Segregation — excluding [people] with disabilities — sets up an ‘us/them’ mentality and reinforces negative, stereotypical, and erroneous perceptions about individuals with disabilities,” writes disability activist Kathie Snow in her article, “Consequences of Segregation.”“Perceptions and attitudes are intertwined, and our attitudes drive our actions.”
Policies that segregate immunocompromised students let able-bodied students think we don’t deserve to be here. I have personally begged my classmates to wear a mask, explaining my condition, buying masks and baking brownies to say thank you. They refuse, rolling their eyes and commenting on my social media, “What makes you think you deserve to live?”
AU’s only avenue for immunocompromised students is to be physically segregated, but segregation creates hostility. What happens when women and Black students are disproportionately immunocompromised?
Those assigned female at birth are four times as likely to have an autoimmune disorder, according to the National Institute of Health. Additionally, “Black students are overrepresented in nine of 13 disability categories and are more likely than their White peers to be placed in ... exclusionary educational settings,” explain disability scholars Beth Ferri and David Connor.
These policies and attitudes communicate that immunocompromised students should either leave campus or not apply to AU in the first place. Students must have functioning immune systems and organs to safely attend.
To any immunocompromised students, if you contact the Disabled Student Union, you can find and add to a private spreadsheet I’ve started of particularly ableist, or accommodating, professors.
I hope able-bodied community members will break AU’s rules and make it safe to attend, no matter what immune function one has.
Greta Mauch is a senior in the School of Communication and a columnist for The Eagle.