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‘Leaving us behind’: High-risk students ask, why can’t all college courses be offered online?

College sophomore Cameron Lynch has lived the past five months in a single square mile, only venturing outside her home a couple times a week for early-morning or late-night walks.

“It’s already a stressful time to be immunocompromised,” said Lynch, who has Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and a form of muscular dystrophy. “Now, a good portion of able-bodied people are going back to the way life was, leaving us behind.”

Several weeks ago, Lynch, who attends the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, authored a letter expressing her frustrations and posted it to social media. She never expected the response she would get: Dozens of immunocompromised college students from across the U.S. started reaching out to her, so they formed a support group to share information on the policies their schools were implementing.

Lynch is just one of the thousands of college students with weakened immune systems who are stuck inside amid the the coronavirus pandemic and navigating treacherous back-to-school dynamics. While many colleges and universities offered all classes online last spring, many aren’t doing the same this fall, leaving immunocompromised students stressed out, rearranging schedules and locked in lengthy exchanges with accommodation offices.

People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19 and may be sick for a longer period of time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with conditions such as diabetes, sickle cell disease, chronic kidney disease and asthma are at greater risk, the CDC says.

“These are very real concerns for our immunocompromised students,” said Dr. Khalilah Gates, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Every immunocompromised state is not the same, so it is – as everything in COVID-19 has been – a risk-benefit discussion.”

Khalilah said returning to campus – particularly living in dorms – poses significant risks to immunocompromised students. People in that age group are also more likely to participate in extracurricular activities that may increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission and exposure, she said.

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