Posted On: August 20, 2020
Ten students and three representatives from the Access offices of local colleges participated in the Access U Back-to-School Kickoff, held virtually August 6 over Zoom.
The event began with a panel discussion led by Amy Bird of St. Louis Community College Florissant Valley as well as Cindy Yamnitz and Tasha Scola from Webster University. The Access professionals took turns describing what students can expect as classes get underway and what their respective offices are doing to support students during these times of uncertainty.
Amy told the audience about efforts to create a virtual Access office at STLCC Florissant Valley, an unprecedented move designed to address the needs of students with disabilities while also keeping them safe and healthy during the pandemic.
“Within our learning management platform, which is Blackboard, we’ve created an organization for our students where they can get all the information they need and hopefully stay in better contact with us now that they’re not able to come see us like they used to,” Amy explains.
Amy also expressed her wish that students turn to online resources like Blackboard to maintain a sense of campus community.
“We want to stress that we understand people are feeling anxious and isolated, and we hope that this virtual space will alleviate that and help students reach out to each other as well as to us,” Amy adds.
Katie Fields, College Outreach Coordinator at SDI, was pleased to offer an uplifting message as the fall semester begins.
“I just wanted my students to hear some encouraging words to set a positive tone for the school year because I know a lot of them are rather anxious to go back,” Katie explains.
Kickoff participants spent the remainder of the event puzzling over trivia questions and discussing the bizarre nature of returning to campus life under such unusual circumstances.
“The students and I had conversations about how they’re feeling, what they’re nervous about and what they’re excited for. They talked back and forth with one another, and I could get a sense for where they’re at,” Katie recalls. “I think it’s great that we’ve kind of built a support system for our students. It means a lot for them to have a safe place to vent their feelings to other peers who might understand a little more.”
Most area colleges and universities have adopted a hybrid approach to resuming campus activities. For instance, the University of Missouri St. Louis is allowing classes of 30 students or less to meet in person, provided that professors wear face shields and students maintain 6 feet of social distance with face coverings in place throughout. Classes of more than 30 students are required to meet virtually. As Access U participant and UMSL senior Tarika Walton describes, the university has turned to mobile technology as a means of monitoring the health of students.
“They’ve created an app with which we’re supposed to take our temperature and run through a series of questions,” Tarika explains. “For times when we’re going to be on campus, we have to show our health status through that app.”
All of Tarika’s classes will be online this semester, but she still expressed some reservations about living in a dorm.
“When everything went virtual last spring, students were pretty good about following the rules and avoiding close contact. But I did notice people entering through the lobby in groups of two, three and four, and they were not always social distancing,” Tarika recalls. “And how are we supposed to swipe in and stay 6 feet apart from the desk attendant? It just doesn’t seem possible.”
As always, Katie will be in regular contact with students and access office staff to provide support during this strange transitional period. The Access U Quarantine Catch-ups are scheduled to resume in September, giving students a forum for reconnecting with one another and sharing their COVID-19 college experiences. She would also like to get students more involved in the planning of special events, hinting that a disability awareness panel could be in the works for later in the fall.
While the pandemic has forced many of her students out of their comfort zones, Katie expects that they will still find ways to make the best of a difficult situation.
She concludes: “We know that people with disabilities are very adaptable and resilient, and I think our students will handle this just fine.”