We’ve all been in class with that one person who is hacking up a lung and has a growing mountain of snotty used tissues on their desk. But, for some reason, they still came and are not masking.
“It’s not COVID-19,” they say unconvincingly. “I’m not contagious.” As if they can know that. They took a rapid test two days ago.
It’s been a month since Yale dropped its indoor masking requirement, and overnight, every professor had sole discretion over whether they wanted to require masks in their classroom. Otherwise, it’s up to individuals to opt in to masking. The rise of the “not-covid” Yague patient struggling through class is predictable, and we’ll probably see a barrage of them after Halloweekend. It’s not always entirely their fault they’re in class — many professors have reinstated in-person only office hours, class attendance policies that impact grades and students have had a hard time getting Dean’s excuses for things that aren’t COVID-19. But not masking is a choice. For immunocompromised students and others who are worried about their health, this is more than something to roll your eyes at and joke about later. It makes the classroom stressful, distracting and inaccessible.
In 2020, disability advocates and experts said that the pandemic was a unique opportunity to radically rethink how classes and the rest of society function and innovate to accommodate students with disabilities. But now with mask optional, in-person classes, Yale is moving backwards in terms of accessibility. Accommodations like virtual office hours and recorded lectures that were extended to everyone in 2020 are now things students have to specifically request — and don’t always receive. The “if it’s not COVID-19, you have to go to class” ethos is emblematic of other problems that those in the disabled community have been advocating against for years.
Professors’ lack of clarity about masking and insistence on pre-pandemic attendance policies are symptomatic of the larger problem. We treat accessibility as something students should have to self-advocate and even fight for and not a baseline standard required by law.
Aderonke Adejare ’24 who has sickle cell disease and asthma, described being at Yale like fighting for her life. Individuals with sickle cell disease are prone to infections — COVID-19 or not —, and her other disabilities make it difficult for her to climb the many flights of stairs required to get to classrooms and other places on campus. Many buildings at Yale are inaccessible: They’re spaced far apart, most residential entryways lack elevators, and the elevators that do exist are slow, out of the way and sometimes even broken.
“I feel like a lot of my experience here has been fighting to get things that are just commonplace in the real world,” said Adejare, noting that in other places she’s lived, this is not the norm.
Online classes had non-covid-related benefits for many students, making the ways Yale is physically inaccessible matter less. Students who could not make the trek to cultural houses on the weekends or had a hard time being in large groups of people for a variety of reasons had unprecedented access to events. And students who are not officially diagnosed with learning disabilities or registered with Student Accessibility Services also benefited from the flexibility of these classroom policies.
Yale needs to do better, and that starts with expecting disabled people to be on campus and wanting the option to have the Full Yale Experience — including extracurriculars and campus events outside of class. As an institution, Yale should think critically about the burdens it places on disabled students and make concrete changes to do better. For example, instead of asking immunocompromised students to negotiate masking in every single class and in all their social interactions, professors should be trained to take the lead on these conversations.
The next time we have to go from universal masking to mask-optional — and with the way we’re going with this pandemic, there will be a next time — Yale should plan out intermediary steps between the two. This might look like something like my English professor who sent out an email asking if there was anyone who would strongly prefer for us to stay masked without need for disclosure of disability or justification. After students individually replied, she required masking in our class. This action expects that there might be someone for whom masking would be helpful and allows them to voice their concerns without having to share with the whole class.
I want to believe that most people on this campus would mask if they knew they were in the room with an immunocompromised person who felt unsafe being there without masks, but on the whole, people don’t expect that their classmates might be immunocompromised or even disabled.
People should not be required to disclose a disability to access their education, and Yale’s accessibility shouldn’t be dependent on every individual professor and student opting in. At a college where 18 percent of undergraduates requested accommodations from SAS last year, there needs to be systemic change, and we should listen to advocates like those in DEFY and other disabled people who have been advocating for change for years to do it.
But until then, there are still things that we can do on an individual level. When you plan an event, expect that people who have accessibility needs might want to come and plan accordingly. In class, especially after Halloween festivities, remember that even if you chose to go out, not everyone had that option. Don’t make immunocompromised people beg you to mask, especially if you’re sick, mask up!
SERENA PUANG is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.