[Ed. 2020: universities don’t want to get sued for giving students covid. remote. 2021: universities don’t want to discount tuition for remote instruction. no remote. see a theme? $$$$$]
Scholars question the legality and morality of Cornell’s refusal to consider requests from faculty to teach online — even requests “premised on the need for a disability accommodation.”
By Elizabeth Redden
August 13, 2021
Cornell University said this week it will not consider any faculty requests to teach remotely instead of in person, not even from those seeking accommodations for chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Scholars questioned the legality and the wisdom of Cornell’s stance in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to individuals with disabilities who are qualified to fulfill the “essential functions” of a given job.
Michael Kotlikoff, Cornell’s provost, and Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education, said in a letter to faculty and instructional staff Wednesday that Cornell has determined that face-to-face instruction is vital to the resumption of “normal operations.”
“In-person teaching is considered essential for all faculty members and instructional staff with teaching responsibilities,” Kotlikoff and Nishii wrote. “Accordingly, the university will not approve requests, including those premised on the need for a disability accommodation, to substitute remote teaching for normal in-person instruction. For individuals with disabilities, the university routinely works to explore a wide array of possible workplace accommodations. Any faculty member in need of any disability-based accommodation should contact the Medical Leaves Administration office (MLA). For individuals who are not able to perform the essential functions of their position because of a disability, MLA can advise them of other options, including the availability of a medical leave.”
Some criticized the policy as unfeeling toward faculty who are immunocompromised or who have other medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe outcomes should they contract COVID-19.
“We teach because we enjoy it, and it’s rewarding,” said Rebecca Harrison, a Ph.D. Candidate in Cornell’s Department of Science & Technology Studies who represented graduate students on Cornell’s reopening committee last year. “And all of a sudden when we don’t feel supported, or our health matters less than the institution’s success, it’s demoralizing and eventually it’s not sustainable.”
Ruth Colker, an expert on disability law and the Distinguished University Professor and Heck Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law at Ohio State University, questioned the legality of Cornell’s approach. “I would say they got bad legal advice,” she said. “Historically, employers have been given some deference if they put in writing what the essential qualifications are before the person made the request for accommodations. But we have an unusual situation right here because last year Cornell and other universities told students that they could accept their tuition and provide them with an appropriate education through all-online instruction.”
Colker added that the process of seeking reasonable accommodation is “supposed to be an interactive good-faith dialogue, in this case between an employer and an employee. The employer is supposed to refrain from having a priori conclusions about what would be reasonable in a particular circumstance, That’s why I’m shocked by Cornell putting this in writing in the way they did. It seems to me they’re violating that basic principle.”
Arlene S. Kanter, a professor of law and director of the Disability Law & Policy Program at Syracuse University, agreed.
“The whole point of the ADA is to provide an opportunity for an employee to have an individualized, interactive conversation with their employer about the appropriateness of an accommodation,” she said. “Blanket rules that would prohibit an individual with a disability from showing that in their individual case they’re entitled to an accommodation would be disfavored by any court throughout the country.”
Kanter also said that while employers do not have to provide an accommodation if doing so would present an “undue hardship,” she thinks a university would be unsuccessful in arguing that allowing a professor with a documented disability to teach online would present such a hardship.
“For the past year and a half people have been teaching remotely,” she said. “If they could do it then, why would it be an undue hardship now?”
Cornell declined requests for an interview about the policy on Thursday. In their letter, Kotlikoff and Nishii emphasized the safety protocols Cornell has put in place. The university is mandating vaccination against COVID-19, as well as requiring students to wear face masks indoors and to participate in surveillance testing.
“As has been repeatedly demonstrated over the course of the pandemic, the university has taken a careful and rigorously scientific approach to such risks, aimed at pursuing its academic mission while placing the highest priority on campus and community health,” they wrote. “Our plan for the fall semester is designed to minimize the risk of virus transmission and provide a safe environment for learning and discovery. While some transmission has been observed elsewhere among groups of people with substantial vaccination rates (for example, the CDC reported on a cluster in Provincetown, Mass., where roughly three-quarters of those involved were vaccinated), our on-campus vaccination rate of 94 percent is higher than those other instances. Moreover, the populations in which these outbreaks occurred were not protected by regular testing, nor did they use masks at the level that they will be used by the Cornell community.”
Sami Schalk, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Cornell’s protocols are “great safety measures that will protect probably the vast majority of their campus. But there are many disabled folks or immunocompromised people who have been pretty hyper-isolated over the past year and a half. To force them out, it’s just unconscionable.”
Schalk said that while she’s heard from other professors that their institutions have verbally discouraged faculty from seeking remote teaching as an ADA accommodation, she was surprised by Cornell putting such a policy in writing. “It is hard enough for disabled people to work and learn at many universities and this will force people out in a way that sets us back in terms of disabled people having access to higher ed,” she said.
Ellen Samuels, a disabilities studies expert at UW Madison and a professor in the departments of English and gender and women’s studies, called Cornell’s policy “morally questionable” and one that “flies in the face of all the claims about diversity, equity and inclusion that universities are fond of making these days.”
“You’re taking a group of people who worked very hard and took a lot of personal risk to keep the university going and now the university is turning around and saying, not only will we not grant you the ability to make your own choices about how much risk to take this fall, but we won’t even consider fully documented ADA accommodations requests that go through the usual university channels — even though the number of people who can make those requests and access that medical documentation is so small at a large university like Cornell,” Samuels said. “The message that’s being sent is we care so little about your labor and your safety that we’re willing to risk breaking the law in order to force you into the classroom.”
by Russell Thacker, PhD
“Is it possible to know my students well enough to love them?” This question was on my mind a lot this year. As an online instructor with students dispersed around the country and in a pandemic when students and faculty weren’t able to meet as regularly as before, I found it difficult to know what was actually going on in my students’ lives.
Sure, I knew enough about my students. There was a nice headshot in the school directory and some background information about their class standing. They each uploaded a polished video introduction, and their papers contained some clues to their personal, family, or cultural backgrounds. But I often found myself wondering, do I really know them?
One student whom I had been emailing all week about a class issue mentioned in a discussion post to another student that she had just spent a few days in the hospital and was recovering from some health issues. Another had to withdraw from classes unexpectedly due to stress. And a third student who was uncharacteristically upset over an assignment later revealed he was immuno-compromised and had been unable to leave his apartment for some time. And on and on the experiences went. I often wished I could sit down and have a conversation with each of my students, face-to-face and heart-to-heart. Just five minutes during an office hour to say hello, ask a few questions, and check body language might be able tell me more than fifty minutes of email, discussion posts, or the occasional video chat.
But this was not possible this year, and it may not be likely in the future with the growth of online education. Even after the pandemic, distributed and asynchronous online learning will remain a staple of higher education. Online education has proven excellent at increasing access but poor at expanding empathy. This matters because faculty-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships are just as valuable products of higher education as the content of the learning itself. As one education scholar, Jennifer Morton, cautioned, “Online education can teach very many things, but it is not a promising space for students to practice and develop the non-cognitive skills they need to navigate many aspects of having a successful career in the middle-class.” It will be increasingly important for online instructors to find ways to build relationships with their students in new and creative ways.
How can you close the distance between you and your students? These five practices can help any online, remote, or asynchronous teacher better connect and empathize with their students.
Invest in Learning About Students Upfront
Making deliberate efforts to learn about students at the beginning of a course can yield important insight. One teacher distributes a personal background and goal survey to each class member and uses this information to make personal connections with them throughout the course. Others schedule one-on-one video meetings with each student in their first two weeks of the course.
Build Informality into Course Structures
Technology can be wonderful for connecting, but it can also make interactions more formal than they need to be. When I log into a Zoom meeting, there is pressure to begin right away and then sign off at the end to use the time responsibly. But in-person classes are not like this. There is informal time at the beginning, end, and at various points throughout. You can start online class with icebreaker questions to get everyone talking, schedule brain breaks for students to interact with each other, and practice “last one out” by staying online after class until everyone else has left in case someone wants to speak with you.
“I Just Called to Say…”
You don’t need to wait for a reason to check in with students about how they are doing or how the class is going. Through email or chat, ask if there is anything you need to know as an instructor that is happening outside class that could affect their class performance. Better yet, be familiar with what they have shared about their background and goals so you can follow up on their interests.
Ask for a Mid-Class Evaluation
Honest feedback is hard to come by in an online space until the end of the course. Students may say the right things when asked, and online discussion boards typically have a rosy complexion. This leaves me wondering how students are really doing in the course. I have found that asking for feedback during a course through a mid-term survey or focus group yields better insight and gives the students a place to open up and be more vulnerable in their responses. Also, reaching out to individual students to ask for their feedback on an assignment is a great way to build rapport.
Treat Information with Utmost Care
Finally, it can be difficult for students to share information with their instructors whom they have never met in person or who live far away. When students reveal any piece of information, treat it with utmost care. Carefully regarded information can go a long way toward building trust and deepening connections.
Of course, loving your students isn’t solely dependent on knowing them. We should love them regardless. But online teachers can build better relationships of trust and be more effective in supporting students through a stronger personal connection, and this requires more awareness than online teachers usually have. What other techniques have you found useful in closing the empathy gap between you and your students?