Community colleges are facing myriad issues as they transition to virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Among them is how to ensure they stay compliant with federal regulations designed to ensure the needs of students with disabilities are met.
But that is particularly difficult in the quick turnaround for colleges shifting their in-person classes to a virtual or hybrid environment. For staff charged with ensuring technology is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it’s especially tough, as many of them are not only squeezed by deadlines, but those who are now required to work from home also may not have access to the equipment and tools to do that work.
Two community college leaders in Arizona posed some of the challenges facing their institutions to the U.S. Education Department (ED). In a letter to the department, Maricopa Community Colleges Interim Chancellor Steven Gonzales and Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert — whose colleges represent 75 percent of community college enrollment in the state — asked the department to temporarily ease some ADA requirements in the current environment, noting that they still would continue to seek ways to address students’ needs.
“Both our colleges are deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we do believe in the principals of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the leaders wrote. “However, anything you can do to temporarily loosen some of the regulatory requirements that inhibit our ability to continue to serve students, while honoring the need for social distancing, would be greatly appreciated.”
A few of the challenges the chancellors highlighted:
- In work-from-home environments, many departments can’t produce Braille or tactile materials for visually challenged students.
- Because of social distancing, colleges cannot meet directly with students who don’t have virtual access (such as devices and internet access) to establish or discuss needed accommodations.
- Students who have a text-to-speech accommodation for exams now will need to be allowed to use a screen-reading tool during exams, which doesn’t always work if instructors require students to use a lockdown browser or monitoring systems.
- Staff also cannot provide phone-based services to students when working from home since ADA prohibits staff from using personal phones to communicate directly with students.
Guidance from ED
ED this weekend issued ADA guidance pertaining to K-12 schools, but Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary at the department, said that the guidance also applies to higher education institutions. In a reply to the chancellors, Auer Jones noted the department soon will provide new guidance to colleges about expanded flexibility.
ED issued the new K-12 guidance partly in response to reports that some K-12 schools are reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believe that federal disability laws are too burdensome in regards to remote learning.
“School districts must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students,” ED said in the guidance.
It noted that some schools may not be able to provide their services the same way in the current environment, adding that some in-person student services — such as hands-on physical therapy, occupational therapy or tactile sign language educational services — may be unfeasible or unsafe for some institutions to provide.
Finally, although federal law requires that distance instruction is accessible to students with disabilities, it does not mandate specific methods, ED said.
“Where technology itself imposes a barrier to access or where educational materials simply are not available in an accessible format, educators may still meet their legal obligations by providing children with disabilities equally effective alternate access to the curriculum or services provided to other students,” it said.
For example, the department said if a teacher who has a blind student in her class is working from home and cannot distribute a document accessible to that student, she can distribute to the rest of the class an inaccessible document and read the document over the phone to the blind student or provide the blind student with an audio recording.
Despite the challenges, colleges are doing what they can to accommodate students with disabilities amid changes on campuses. For example, Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania is working with each student and for each of their courses to determine their needs and to provide individualized support, said Jennifer C. Osinski, director of the accessibility office at the college.
“At times, assistive or adaptive technology will be used, and at other times, our staff will be assisting with an actual person,” she said in an email to CCDaily, noting that the college’s instructional design team is working with instructors to create accessible course content for students.
“There have been many conversations between the accessibility office and the instructional designers,” she said. “We have developed a close working relationship and continue to ensure faculty support as a team. They are a great resource for faculty.”
The transition may be a bit easier for Arkansas’ National Park College, which for the past few years has had a policy requiring all courses to use a learning management system (LMS), said Donna Kay, director of online learning. At a minimum, every course was already using the LMS for grades, library connection, attendance, the syllabus and college surveys, she said.
All instructors and students are required to receive training using LMS. A mandatory faculty training course included a module on accessibility and ADA compliance.
“In this module, we discussed the importance of creating accessible content, issues to be aware of and provided training on how to use various tools, including the accessibility checker in the LMS, to help ensure all content was accessible,” Kay said.