OPINION: The 5Cs should make their courses hybrid-flexible this semester

Several smiley faces attend class; one is distressed. Two thought bubbles show the smiley happy on zoom and the COVID virus.
(Seohyeon Lee • The Student Life)

In August 2021, Keck Graduate Institute implemented hybrid-flexible (HyFlex) instruction for all classes, enabling students with COVID-19 or other illnesses to remotely attend livestreamed classes synchronously with their in-person classmates. This practice never proliferated at the 5Cs, where Spring 2022 courses were all in person by Jan. 31 after two weeks online.

The 5Cs also saw 158 COVID-19 cases in Jan. 17-23. Despite dwindling to 84 in the next week, new cases still greatly exceeded last semester’s typical weekly numbers. As TSL reports this week, that prompted a group of immunocompromised students led by Johnny Ellsworth PO ’24 to to request HyFlex learning for students with underlying conditions until the pandemic’s stabilization. 

Disability Community and Validating Relationships (DISCOVR), a 5C student-run disability club, later released a petition for HyFlex learning, which I urge everyone to sign. This semester, the 5Cs must implement universal HyFlex education to protect their community members.

Precautions against COVID-19 might feel increasingly antiquated. I’ve seen people argue that the Omicron variant’s milder symptoms, the student body’s 99 percent vaccination rate and the 5C-wide vaccine booster requirement for eligible students put most students at miniscule risk of severe symptoms. More students seem resigned to believing that COVID-19 will inevitably infect everyone, so attempting to mitigate it is pointless.

Vaccines and milder symptoms are certainly good news. Yet as California’s currently very high (albeit declining) level of cases illustrates, vaccines and Omicron’s mildness haven’t altogether ended the pandemic.

Ostensibly nonthreatening illnesses can still endanger people with preexisting conditions. In 2017, my brother’s seizure medication hindered his capacity to fight a cold. That morphed into a formidable bout of pneumonia that necessitated hospitalization.

While no current evidence suggests higher COVID-19 infection rates or graver symptoms for those with asthma, my condition, I fear the asthma complications from illnesses with respiratory symptoms. Postnasal drip from nasal congestion (a COVID-19 symptom) triggers an asthma flare-up that frequently outlasts the initial illness. COVID-19 could potentially dangerously exacerbate my asthma.

That said, perspectives of COVID-19 should not solely derive from examining its commonalities with upper respiratory diseases. Equating COVID-19 to influenza and the common cold is deceptive. Compared to those two illnesses, COVID-19 has increased superspreader potential and higher death and hospitalization rates. Recent research even challenges COVID-19’s initial classification as a respiratory disease, pointing towards labeling it as a vascular disease with greater health implications.

Amidst Omicron’s hyper-transmissibility, more people than ever before have contracted COVID-19 or know someone who has. Individuals without underlying conditions or severe COVID-19 symptoms can still get long COVID. Considering this, concerned individuals with preexisting conditions aren’t overreacting to cold-like symptoms. We fear chronic illness, as well as death.

To be clear, DISCOVR’s plea for a remote choice is not asking for everyone to learn remotely. DISCOVR acknowledges the numerous people struggling with online schooling, especially neurodivergent students like my brother. However, designating in-person instruction as universally superior disregards pupils whose underlying conditions (or higher-risk household members) warrant online options. Many in this group do perform better in person, but don’t think the benefits of physical attendance outweigh the increased risks from a possible COVID-19 exposure. 

Per a reply to Ellsworth’s email from Dean Robert Gaines, Pomona faculty rejected HyFlex instruction, citing its “poorest and most asymmetric learning outcomes [between remote students and in-person students]” —but that claim doesn’t track with all of the sources cited in Gaines’s email to TSL. 

Mandating HyFlex instruction prevents professors from denying students’ requests to attend remotely (as some of Ellsworth’s professors did, according to an interview with TSL), but it’s only the first step. The mandate’s success requires the 5Cs to invest in robust support to help faculty navigate the pedagogical and technical challenges of HyFlex learning. This investment is worthwhile, as the pandemic’s current downward trajectory may change later. HyFlex learning lessens the impact of a future sudden transition to fully online education should the need for it arise. 

To avoid forcing students with invisible disabilities to disclose that they are disabled to their classmates (just as LGBT+ individuals shouldn’t be pressured to out themselves), HyFlex instruction shouldn’t be limited to students with COVID-19 or documented underlying conditions. Moreover, some lack the financial means to access a diagnosis.

HyFlex learning is less feasible in some courses, like music ensembles. Music departments could temporarily increase flexibility in completing ensemble requirements for music majors and minors. Other options include creating virtual chamber groups using the software Jamulus, wherein musicians synchronously play together online.

Characterizing COVID-19 as trivial because it only threatens individuals with underlying conditions devalues people with disabilities. Our right to education and life is as valuable as anyone else’s. If the 5Cs are to reflect that, they should adopt HyFlex learning.

Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is a former contributing opinions writer at TSL and DISCOVR member from Los Angeles, California. Visit tinyurl.com/5chybridlearning to sign the petition.

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