Twenty-six months have passed since COVID-19 shut down most college campuses. Since then, leaders have dealt with variants, masking, unmasking, testing, remote learning, isolation and quarantines. Now nearing the summer of 2022, the pandemic has in many ways made it into the rearview mirror as leaders focus on “the endemic phase.” But there is a long shadow that still remains: long COVID.
Individuals who had mild COVID cases or were unaware they even contracted coronavirus have shown unusual late symptoms. Brain fog. Fatigue. Headaches. Sleep problems. Breathing difficulties. Even blood clotting and organ damage, according to the Mayo Clinic. Long COVID’s intrusion has been a nuisance for some but debilitating for others.
“A lot of the cognitive symptomology that you’re seeing with long COVID is very reminiscent of a traumatic brain injury, working with veterans or a student who has a brain tumor or concussion,” says Kimberley Bassi-Cook, Director of Disability Services at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa.
Diagnosing it has been a challenge because it is still relatively new and its presentation so varied–in some ways like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome or Lyme disease. Colleges and universities that thought they had this pandemic mostly figured out, deftly handling individual cases and outbreaks, have the potential for a long road ahead in both understanding long COVID and providing resources to students, staff and faculty.
“There’s not a lot out there about thinking about how to support these students,” Bassi-Cook says. “We’re not seeing the number [of individuals] that we should be seeing in our offices. The biggest thing is to have conversations on campuses, to find some time to talk about it. We have to think outside the box, or throw out the box, and start over again.”
The General Accountability Office estimates that 23 million Americans may have, or are still, feeling the impacts of long COVID. That has led to more than a million sick days for U.S. workers. But it also may be having a profound effect on students and their coursework. With variants arising, cases going up and down and fewer mitigation strategies in place, campus leaders likely will need to account for more accommodations and more support as they move toward 2022-23.
A task force to help higher ed
Bassi-Cook is part of a long COVID task force started last August by Jane Jarrow, president of Disability Access Information and Support and former Executive Director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), that has been providing guidance and plus an extensive workbook for campus disability leaders. The guide is a compilation of best practices from disability leaders at a range of higher education institutions that includes how to approach the intake of individuals and potential accommodations. The framework is meant to be flexible, rather than a template, since no one solution can fit every campus.
More from UB: What shifting to endemic mode looks like at one university
Perhaps the biggest challenge is determining what types of accommodations individuals can qualify for, especially if their COVID went undiagnosed. They may or may have documentation from providers or may have other preexisting conditions, further complicating the process for disability teams.
“There are a lot of variables to determine what a student is eligible for,” Bassi-Cook says. “It’s that nexus of the diagnosis and the impact the diagnosis has on the individual. I can have a vision impairment, but it may not make me qualified to say I’m legally blind or that I’m eligible for accommodations. It’s based on that interactive process. That allows us to see what documentation the students have, do a thorough intake interview with them to see what their symptomology is. And then really tailor what is appropriate to them. With COVID, we are learning as we go.”
The task force notes in its guidebook that along with potential documentation, self-disclosure is key to the process. Long COVID’s symptoms are often vague, so many have not even seen providers or have documentation. Bassi-Cook recalled two other instances when disability teams were faced with similar dilemmas around accommodations: Hurricane Katrina and the wave of concussions around athletes 12 years ago. “With Katrina, that was a group of students who had lost all their documentation. There wasn’t anything available to figure out what a student was eligible for,” she says. “When we started seeing an influx of students with concussions, the documentation was for K-12, or [it] said a student may need to put their head on the table. Concussion information was very much geared to return to play, but not geared to return to academics in a higher education setting.”
While the guidebook is a tremendous resource for disability providers–as are listservs for handling everyday advice–Bassi-Cook says more information is needed for other campus constituents. The task force is working on further guidance that can be shared with health services, counseling, residence life, TRIO programs, academic counselors and faculty on long COVID.
“We’ve actively working on what the next steps are,” she says. “So, if we have students that are academically at risk, faculty would know how to refer or recommend. It’s not for them to diagnose or to say you’re eligible, but it is so that they get in our door. If they’re not eligible, they still might be eligible for housing if they’re having difficulty with mobility or maybe a closer residence hall? If they’re having trouble with fatigue, maybe evening classes or remote attendance.”
The American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force is also planning to address long COVID, in its release to campus leaders this June. “We certainly are going to include a section in our guidance for the fall on managing post-COVID conditions that may impact a student’s ability to carry out their academic experience,” says Anita Barkin, ACHA task force co-chair, who said that one college health leader told her that they were seeing many more accommodation requests coming from students for the incoming class. “Most of the folks I’m talking to are looking forward to the guidance.”