Student petition calls for hybrid class option, citing ‘equitable access to education’

Four blue figures sit in desks around a spotlighted yellow figure. The yellow figure is clearly distressed.
(Lucia Marquez • The Student Life)

When in-person classes at the 5Cs resumed Jan. 31, not everyone celebrated the return to the classroom. Some students have been advocating for the colleges to offer a hybrid learning option, citing issues of educational inequity. 

A petition created by DISCOVR, an advocacy group for students with disabilities, has garnered over 1,000 signatures since its publication Feb. 1. It seeks to ensure students may attend classes in person or remotely, especially if they test positive for COVID-19.

“During the midst of a pandemic, disabled students are being told to either risk their health or forfeit their education,” the petition reads. 

Before creating the petition, Johnny Ellsworth PO ’24 and 11 other immunocompromised students originally reached out to Pomona College Dean of Students Avis Hinkson Jan. 28 to request a hybrid learning option, voicing concerns with current safety policies amid the Omicron surge.

In an email reviewed by TSL, Vice President of Academic Affairs Robert Gaines told the students that Pomona is unable to ask faculty to begin teaching in a hybrid format, adding he hoped “many of your professors and academic advisors would be willing to work with you towards reasonable solutions as Omicron is now waning on our campuses, in California and in most of the world.”

“The data are very clear: hybrid modalities have the poorest and most asymmetric learning outcomes,” Gaines wrote. “Not only do they disadvantage those students who are not in the classroom relative to those who are, but they have a multiplying effect that can enhance other inequalities. Our faculty have been clear on this point.”

In a separate email to TSL, Gaines added that “thus far, contract tracing has revealed no evidence of COVID-19 spread in the classroom.”

“The College is committed to engaging in an individualized, interactive process to determine a student’s unique circumstances and any reasonable arrangements as appropriate,” he said.

But to Ellsworth, the dean’s response “misses key realities.”

“It is a widely studied subject that a physically safe environment is crucial for productive learning,” Ellsworth said.

For Ellsworth, eliminating the hybrid option is a matter of educational freedom.

“The colleges may be widening existing inequalities by forcing disabled people who are disproportionately Black and low income from accessing a safe educational environment,” he said.

After their request was denied, and inspired by similar demands put forth by the Disabled Student Union at UCLA, Ellsworth and other students involved in DISCOVR decided to circulate their petition, entitled “Claremont Colleges: Our education matters; let disabled students learn remotely!”

“I think that disabled, immunocompromised and other concerned students deserve an education without fear for their physical safety. And I think that, regardless of the course, regardless of the professor, disabled students should be able to access the classroom,” Ellsworth said.

“I think that disabled, immunocompromised and other concerned students deserve an education without fear for their physical safety.”

Johnny Ellsworth PO '24

He added that a hybrid option won’t just benefit students but could also benefit their roommates and immunocompromised family members. 

While outdoor classrooms were preferable to indoor settings in Ellsworth’s opinion, he said he didn’t think that was a substitute for a virtual option. 

“This is about safety. I don’t think we should be taking any chances,” he said.

Kaia Smith SC ’23 agreed with the need for a hybrid option generally, concurring that offering some classes outdoors is not a viable replacement to the virtual option the petition seeks. 

“There’s ultimately still going to be circumstances where people have COVID and really need to not come to class in any way, shape or form,” she said. “… Quite frankly, I do think that just allowing the option to participate virtually for everybody is the best circumstance.”

Inq Soncharoen HM ’24 agreed with the need for educational equity and accessibility, but added that a hybrid option may not work well with classes at Harvey Mudd College.  

I know that at Mudd it may be a bit of an issue because a lot of the time they emphasize group work, and some of my classes are flipped,” Soncharoen said. 

A flipped classroom is where students listen to lectures on their own time and spend time in the classroom doing more active work. Sonchareon said that lab work would also be nearly impossible to host on Zoom, making it more difficult to have a hybrid solution for courses requiring hands-on work. 

Like many students, Smith is also concerned about the 5Cs’ current policy in which professors can decide whether to provide remote access to classes, which she believes might risk an inequitable prioritization of students who do not feel the need to seek a remote option. 

“I think one of the issues with the way the policy is right now is it incentivizes people to come to class and potentially put other students at risk, when that could be dangerous for the community,” she said. 

For Ellsworth, this policy creates issues in terms of fair access to classes. 

“I think it’s an undue burden on students,” he said. “The main problem is that professors haven’t been given the infrastructure or training to provide a hybrid option. Both need to happen.”

Soncharoen said her professors have been very understanding about COVID and students’ concerns. 

Smith, however, said that while some professors have been taking concerns seriously and adjusting class structures as a result, others have not done so. 

She’s said she’s heard faculty make troubling statements about COVID-19, such as ‘You’re all young and vaccinated, you have nothing to worry about’ and ‘I’m not worried about myself, therefore it’s not important to me that we take these precautions.’

Ellsworth admitted that while the petition is an important first step, it probably won’t make change on its own. 

“We need students who are willing to get involved with DISCOVR, and organize their own communities, and get their families to not only sign the petition, but talk to administrators,” he said. “We need to faculty members who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to provide a hybrid option in my classroom.’”

Smith echoed this sentiment, citing advocacy experience at the 5Cs working with Nobody Fails At Scripps. The student group campaigned to have Scripps College change its grading policies when the 5Cs transitioned to remote learning at the onset of the pandemic.

“Even petitions with a lot of participation from the student body didn’t necessarily result in policy change,” she said. “I think, ultimately, one of the difficulties is going to be getting faculty and staff to feel like this is the best way to do things as well.”

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