Nineteen months into the pandemic, experts are anticipating that a growing number of college students this year will need support because they have long-lasting aftereffects from a coronavirus infection. A new report, from staff members of two dozen colleges’ offices for students with disabilities, offers a guide on how to serve them.
“We have concerns that this will become a significant issue for disability-services offices and that they are ill prepared to meet the challenge because they have no experience with this,” said Jane Jarrow, a private consultant on disability issues for colleges and one of the report’s authors. The new report “is not everything you need to know to support students with long Covid, but it’s a hell of a start.”
Covid-19 is so new, the study of long-haul symptoms is still in its infancy.
Covid-19 is so new, the study of long-haul symptoms is still in its infancy. No one knows how frequently college students get long Covid, and studies in the general population have found that anywhere from 5 percent to 80 percent of people who get the coronavirus suffer longer-term symptoms. The condition can appear in people who had mild or no symptoms of Covid-19 when they were first infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report’s authors have so far seen a few cases in their offices, often among students who were already in touch with their university’s disability-services department for other conditions. Jarrow fears there may be many more suffering students who have never had a disability before and therefore haven’t yet thought of visiting their accessibility office.
Jarrow and her colleagues identified two major challenges that long Covid may present to college accessibility staff. The first is that symptoms of the condition can vary widely between people. One student might feel brain fog and malaise, while another may have fatigue and shortness of breath. Accessibility officers will have to interview students with long Covid carefully to determine which accommodations each individual needs.
The second challenge is that students may lack the documentation that disability offices often ask for. Especially early in the pandemic, otherwise healthy people who suspected they might have Covid-19 were told to stay home, not clog up emergency rooms, and call their doctors only if they got severe symptoms. They might never have received a test for the coronavirus.
To help with these two challenges, the report’s authors created a bank of questions for staffers to ask students, and they advocated for accepting that long-haul patients may have less documentation.
A Learning Curve
At Pepperdine University, the student accessibility office has seen some of the trends the report identified. It’s had incredibly varied cases. There’s one student who struggles with paralysis. There’s one who has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a problem with circulation that can cause lightheadedness and heart palpitations.
As a result, staffers have to do much more sophisticated initial interviews with students than usual. “We have just been on a very big learning curve,” said Sandra Harrison, the office’s executive director and a member of the group that wrote the new report.
Accommodations that Pepperdine has offered its long-haul students include note-taking services for those with brain fog, who might have trouble listening and writing at the same time during lectures, and remote classes for students with weakened immune systems.
On the other hand, Pepperdine hasn’t seen some of the other issues the report pointed out. So far, students have had documentation of their condition, Harrison said. In addition, about half of long-Covid students are new to the accessibility office, suggesting that they are finding the right services, even if they’ve never used them before. So Harrison doesn’t think that there’s a huge unmet need on campus. The need could always grow, however.
“As long as there are still students who are testing positive for Covid,” she said, “we have the potential of having additional students with the diagnosis.”
The report will be posted to the website of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, but first needs to be edited to be readable for people who use screen readers, Jarrow said. The Chronicle embedded an early, less accessible draft of the report, above.