July 7th, 2020

College Accommodations and COVID-19: How to Prepare for the Fall Semester

When the 2019 school year started, no one could have predicted how it would end. Both college and high school students moved to online classes. And for many, that may be the environment for the fall term and beyond.

Elizabeth Hamblet, college learning disabilities specialist and author of From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students With Disabilities, talked to Stacey Reycraft, director of student disability services at the University of Mississippi, to get her answers to questions students may have about accommodations in an online environment.

Start preparing now.

If you know that some or all of your fall classes will be online, you should start preparing now. An important part of that preparation is carefully considering challenges you experienced when classes went online in the spring and developing some strategies to help mitigate those challenges. 


Create a schedule that allows for structure and better time management.

For instance, if you found organizing materials challenging or had difficulty focusing on coursework, you should create a specific work space that is used only for studying and homework. If you were challenged by the lack of structured time (no longer needing to go to class at a specific time), you should create a schedule that allows for structure and better time management. If the class is not scheduled to meet on a specific day and time, you should go ahead and schedule a specific day and time for yourself. As an example, if you’re taking an online math class, you can create a schedule for yourself and work on that class from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day.


Practice with a few different planners to find the one that works best. 

I strongly encourage investing in a good planner before the semester starts and practice using it. You may also want to look into some calendar apps. Planners are important when taking face-to-face classes. They may be even more important in an unstructured, online learning environment. It’s essential that you schedule time to study and prepare for classes. Because there are different types of planners that allow for inputting different kinds of information, I encourage you to practice with a few different planners to find the one that works best. 


Recognize that accommodation needs may change in an online environment.

In addition to working on strategies for organization and time management, be aware that your accommodation needs may change in an online environment. Some approved accommodations may look different. You may find you do not need an approved accommodation that you used in face-to-face classes. Or you may need additional or different support.

Think about what worked—and what didn’t work—last semester. Make a list of accommodations to discuss with your disability services office for the fall semester. Be proactive. 


Reach out to your disability services coordinators as soon as possible.

You can reach out to your disability services (DS) coordinators as soon as possible to discuss any concerns you may have based on challenges experienced during spring semester and request additional accommodations if necessary. It’s OK if you don’t know specifically what additional support you may need. You can talk with your DS coordinator about challenges experienced in the online environment. Through that discussion, you and the coordinator may be able to determine additional accommodations that will help.

You should apply for accommodations as soon as possible.
I can only speak for my university and we don’t have a separate process. Our overall process has not changed given recent health and safety issues, except that we’re now completing all required meetings via telephone or Zoom.

Typically (but again I can only speak for our university), there is not a separate accommodation application process for incoming freshman and transfer students. University disability services (DS) offices usually have a website that explains the process for requesting accommodations. Students are encouraged to call their university’s DS office with any questions about the application process. Because the application process can take a while, you should apply for accommodations as soon as possible. 

Communication is critical.

Disability services (DS) offices rely on you to communicate with them about your needs so that they can coordinate with professors. I suggest reaching out to your DS office early to identify what support they can provide. Share what you need in both virtual and in-person settings. If part of your accommodations are for your physical health, this is critically important. 

Communication is critical. Reach out to the DS office. It’s our job to help facilitate access to classes, even if they’re online. In addition to reaching out to your DS coordinator, it’s important to communicate frequently with your professors. Instructors are the experts in their classes and may be able to provide support and assistance beyond what is provided by the DS office. 

It’s my experience that disability services offices have been very proactive in supporting students during this transition. This has been a challenging time for us as well as for students and professors. As professionals working in disability services, we’re committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to succeed and thrive in the college environment. Most universities are reaching out to students in various ways to stay connected and offer support and guidance. 

At my university, we use an online system that allows us to communicate frequently with students. Since this began in March, we’ve sent students information about how best to take an online class, available counseling services on campus, how professors can help students, and the application process for CARES Act funding. We’ve sent frequent offers of support, encouraging students to reach out to us with any questions or concerns. We also reached out via telephone to students who had not registered for fall classes to talk about why the student may not be returning and to determine if the university can assist them.

In some situations, you may not need some of the accommodations you were going to use in the classroom. However, accommodations are still available, though they may look a little different online than in the classroom. Please note that eligibility for accommodations online and in the classroom is individually determined based on each student’s disability-related impact and the nature of the specific class.


Extended time for exams

This is still available. Typically, students get time and a half, so they would get three hours to take an exam that their class had two hours to take. Instructors will set up that time in whatever system they’re using to administer the exam. Some professors may assign papers or projects instead of giving exams. Or they may give a “take home” style test, giving students multiple days to complete it.


Reduced distraction environment for tests

Unfortunately, there’s little we can do for students whose home does not provide this kind of setting. Students can explore noise-canceling headphones and disposable earplugs to assist with distraction issues in the home.


Computer for exams

Students use the computers to take online classes so this should not be an issue. However, if a professor is using an online system where certain features (such as spellcheck) are disabled, students found eligible for this accommodation should reach out to the disability services (DS) coordinator to discuss the issue.


Calculator for exams

Some online learning management systems have a built-in calculator. If this is disabled, a student who is eligible to use a calculator should reach out to the DS office.


Laptop for note-taking

Students will be using their laptop to attend class, so they won’t need a special accommodation for this.


Permission to record 

Some professors may choose to record their online classes, so this accommodation may not be necessary. Also, some online classes have no lecture or audio component. In that case, there’s no need to record the class. But if there are lecture or audio components, students can ask for permission to record as an accommodation. (At my university, students should not record classes without approval from our office, because students have to sign an agreement about how they will use these recordings.)



Note-taking may not be needed in an online class. This is especially true if there’s no lecture component to the class. If there’s a lecture component, this accommodation may be handled in a variety of ways. It’s possible that students will be emailed copies of a classmate’s notes, or that notes will be posted online. Some professors may provide detailed PowerPoint presentations that take the place of peer notes. If an instructor records a class, that instructor may create and post a transcript.

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