What I Wish Colleges Would Understand About Reopening

When my university first shut down in March because of COVID-19, I thought our quarantine would be temporary. Now I am contemplating a fully online fall semester. I'm calling on all colleges to continue to accommodate the needs of their high-risk students.

Aug. 19, 2020 | 6 min read
Betsy Sullivan

As a rising junior in college with cystic fibrosis, I've had my fair share of ups and downs -- from my first semester being told to “drop out if I need accommodations,” to transferring and finding my best friends in my sorority sisters. Although every year of college has brought difficulties, this year is going to be a new challenge: living as a high-risk college student through a pandemic.

This past spring semester was my favorite, only to be cut short in March due to COVID-19. I had good grades, held two positions in my sorority, had great friends, and an internship with an amazing company; and Trikafta® allowed me to live a fuller life. Come spring break, everything took a quick turn. When my university announced we would extend our break another two weeks, we thought, “No big deal, we'll just quarantine for two weeks.” The office I interned with was completely understanding of my CF, and they transitioned everyone to work-from-home for their own safety. After a few days of quarantining, I realized the severity of the situation as the country went into total lockdown. I kept hearing the term “high risk.”

Most of the time it was in reference to elderly people, and I soon came to the terrifying realization that as a high-risk college student, I am part of a minority, a status that put me low in the list of priorities for universities deciding whether to reopen.

As the semester went fully online, my doctor said, “You know you'll be online next semester too, right?” I laughed and said, “There's no way it would be that bad by then!” Boy, was I wrong! In Texas, we are seeing increasing numbers, and the decision of many universities to reopen is not going to help. The college I left after my first semester planned to have classes in-person, and high-risk students have to petition if they want to take classes online. I've heard from multiple students that the university is denying most petitions (yes, the same school that told me I should drop out if I needed accommodations). Thankfully, they added more virtual options.

Breathing treatments during class? Definitely a new concept, but you gotta do what works!

My current university, which had been amazing with accommodations, told us on July 31 about its plan to have 95 percent of its classes online, starting on August 24. It was too short notice for many students to decide whether to move back or try to cancel their leases. It's short notice for some high-risk students to schedule a telehealth appointment with their clinic to discuss the safest option for them. Our pulmonologists are insanely busy right now -- some of them have been called in to treat COVID-19 patients. Before my school announced its plan, I knew I'd be fully online.

Why even leave the five percent risk for in-person classes when your state is a hot spot? Students have the option to choose virtual for any remaining in-person classes, but after Thanksgiving no one will come back to campus, and we'll be 100 percent virtual. The way cases are trending, I'm guessing we'll be 100 percent virtual before then.

I will deeply miss planning and attending events like this one we had in February.

In addition to classes changing, we've also had to make major changes to the way our student organizations are run. My sorority has gone completely virtual for the semester, and I couldn't be more grateful given the circumstances. All my sisters and the executive board understand that I am high risk and haven't put any pressure on me to attend any of the socially distanced events over the summer, such as filming videos for virtual recruitment. As a member of the executive board and programming council, we have been working endlessly to make sure that all our sisters feel included, safe, and supported during the pandemic. Thankfully, this is an area of being a high-risk college student in which I don't feel forgotten or left out.

Besides just asking universities to be mindful of their high-risk students, I also want to call on companies to be open and welcoming to their interns/young employee's needs (and always ALL employees).

Due to the pandemic lots of students have lost their internship opportunities and had limited chances to apply for upcoming internships. Fortunately, my internship could be completed virtually, and I was offered a part-time position for the summer -- which I love -- but not all students are so lucky. Until there is a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, high-risk students will likely have to enter the workforce virtually, giving us fewer opportunities. I hope that many companies will offer virtual options to their students.

I am incredibly grateful to be able to take my classes online and be employed with such an open-minded company I feel safe with; I hope all students find similar experiences.

Even though we are high risk, we still need to have access to equal education and experience before we graduate. It is the job of universities and employers to ensure students' and employee needs are being met. Colleges: I encourage you to always prioritize high-risk students as the semester goes on and changes are needed. And to students: Remember to always be your biggest advocate!

Interested in sharing your story? The CF Community Blog wants to hear from you.

This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

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Betsy was diagnosed with CF when she was 1 ½ years old. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, she now lives in Austin where she works as a marketing specialist for a biotech company, combining her passions for the medical field and marketing. Betsy is involved with both the national Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and its local chapter. Since starting Trikafta, she has been able to live a freer lifestyle and hopes it allows her to do more in the future. You can find Betsy on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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