Denial of Remote Learning Prompts Accessibility Concerns

Although many students have welcomed the college’s return to fully in-person learning, some students have requested to learn remotely due to personal circumstances. The college has denied all such requests, however, citing the importance of residential experiences to an Amherst education.

Two weeks into the fall semester, Julissa Fernandez ’22 sent an email to her class dean, Senior Associate Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East, requesting to switch to remote learning. In her request, Fernandez cited experiences of mental and emotional strain from being on campus, as well as financial difficulties. A first-generation low-income student, she explained that she supports herself and her family, and being on campus had hindered her job opportunities and earning potential. She also stated that taking a semester off would not be an option for her.

In response, Boykin-East informed her that the college would not be offering a remote learning option to any students this year. “As a compromise, some students have opted to either take a leave for the semester, or as a first semester senior decided to take an educational leave at another institution,” she added. “Some of these students are taking courses closer to their home and some of these courses have even been online courses.”

After receiving this response, Fernandez appealed to several other members of the administration, including Dean of Students Liz Agosto and President Biddy Martin. However, Fernandez said she either received an “unempathetic” email or no response at all.

Other students have also requested to switch to remote learning and been denied the option. While none of these students were available for comment, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein confirmed that since the college announced on April 7 that it would return to in-person learning, “a small number of students have asked to study remotely; those requests have not been granted.”

Fernandez reported that she did not get the help that she needed until late October. After meeting with the Counseling Center and the Office of Accessibility Services about her struggles, Fernandez received counseling, assistance communicating with the school’s administration, and the full amount of accommodations she could get. As a result, she has been approved to live off-campus and granted excused absences, but is still not able to partake in remote learning.

According to Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein, the college is not allowing remote learning this year because personal interactions in the classroom, and experiencing residential life, are crucial for its educational mission. “If faculty members need to provide remote instruction to a small number of students, that alters the character of the class,” she noted. “Once a class is hybrid, instructors have fundamentally changed the classroom experience and potentially compromised the education of all the other students in the class.”

“Hybrid instruction and the technological challenges it poses may place an undue burden on faculty members,” Epstein added.

Fernandez said that the administration never gave her a clear answer on who decided to disallow remote learning, prompting her to lament that “there’s no transparency with students on the decisions that are being made [by the college].” She relayed that, at one point, she was told that  faculty members were responsible for the decision, but later, conversations with a few of her professors revealed that this information was false.

Indeed, several professors expressed disapproval of the college’s policy surrounding remote learning. Olin Professor in Asian Studies (Anthropology) Vanessa Fong commented that, in placing limitations on remote teaching and learning, the college is “depriving faculty and students of a valuable way to improve accessibility, morale, and mental and physical health and safety.” She also posited that the administration is discounting the quality of education that can be offered remotely.

James E. Ostendarp Professor of English, Emeritus Barry O’Connell expressed that remote learning should be offered for all students who need it, regardless of the teaching difficulties that may arise. “[Remote learning] can be inconvenient,” he said. “But for any decent teacher on this faculty, meeting the actual needs of students is the primary commitment of their teaching.”

Going forward, Fernandez hopes the college will reconsider their decision on remote learning. “I’m not very proud of Amherst as an institution,” she reflected. “The college instills these beliefs that they care for their students, but it’s really not true — the college is going to be the college at the end of the day. If that means ignoring students’ needs, they’ll ignore students’ needs.”