Two students writing the same test, one is in broad daylight while the other is writing at night.

We should be accommodating for inconveniences caused by time zone differences

By: Jiahe Deng, Contributor

The 2020 fall semester was drastically different from what we are all used to. Different individuals faced a unique mixture of challenges, which made the past semester rough for many.

As an international student staying in my home country where the local time is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, the time zone difference was a huge burden to learning and sadly, there is no substantial change happening for this term.

I returned to my home country in July 2020 and decided to stay there during online schooling since I thought it’d be better for my mental well-being. As the fall semester started, I found studying 13 hours ahead of Hamilton’s time more challenging than I thought. 

First of all, it was tough for me to find a routine that worked. A friend of mine usually goes to bed at 8:00 p.m. and consistently gets up at 3:00 a.m. He was able to attend all his classes and it worked perfectly for him. However, this didn’t work for me. If I attended all my classes, I wouldn’t see any daylight. After two weeks of trial-and-error, I finally decided to only watch one course live and watch recordings for the other classes. 

Next, I needed to find ways to deal with in-class midterms and exams after 1:00 a.m. I first tried to change my sleep schedule on the date of the tests. I wrote one test at 1:30 a.m., but this resulted in three unproductive days in a hectic week since I needed to sleep extra hours the day before the test and felt exhausted two days after the test. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work for me.

So I contacted my professors to see if I can write my 2:00 a.m. tests and 5:00 a.m. exam at a different time slot. Although my professors eventually agreed to this, I was also told that it was a university-level decision not to have a policy to guarantee accommodations for time zone differences.

However, I found this decision to be unreasonable. My family is in my home country and I chose to stay here so that we could support each other through this unusual time. I’m sure many international students feel similarly in terms of wanting to stay in their home country, but also wanting to write tests at a normal time. Thus, I believe this problem deserves a systematic solution.

Although some of us stay up late from time to time, it is unjust if students are required to attend classes or take tests in the middle of the night. 

Although some of us stay up late from time to time, it is unjust if students are required to attend classes or take tests in the middle of the night. 

To make my point, we first need to reflect on our circumstances. Right now, courses are almost exclusively online, so we should interpret our classes as “online school” instead of “taking in-person classes in digital form.”

If we “take in-person classes in digital form,” then it’s reasonable to expect everyone to show up for every class just like when we are attending school in-person, with the only difference being the delivery switched from in-person to online. However, this expectation is unrealistic.

Instead, we should look at this as “online schooling.” This means we need to respect the fact that not everyone has a quiet place to study all the time and that not everyone is in the same time zone. If we disrespect this fact and choose not to be flexible, then we systematically make it harder for students who don’t always have access to quiet space, who live in another time zone and who have limited internet access, to thrive.

Second, not giving accommodations for a time zone difference is unjust and puts students’ health in jeopardy. Without accommodations, it implies that the university expects students to write a test at inconvenient times, say at 4:00 a.m. However, it’s reasonable to assume that an average person is not able to function to their average ability at that time. Therefore, it’s obviously unjust to test students when clearly some can’t function normally. 

On the other hand, without accommodations, a student may have to switch their sleep schedule often. I don’t need to over-emphasize how important a consistent sleep schedule is. Even people who work night shifts can have several days off after their shifts. However, after writing a test at 4:00 a.m., students often don’t get a break since the course goes on. Thus, I believe not giving accommodation has systematically put students’ health in jeopardy. 

One argument against giving accommodations is integrity. As much as I agree that integrity is crucial, I insist it is necessary to accommodate time zone differences. After all, testing that is equitable takes precedence over integrity.

Additionally, Student Accessibility Services students have the ability to get their tests rescheduled, so there must be ways to balance rescheduling and integrity; for instance, having different versions of the test.

Another concern is that when international students write exams at time slots convenient to them, there might not be staff available to answer questions, which is against university policy. However, if the instructor can let the student know rescheduling might result in no staff available during the test, this concern can be resolved, since students waive the right of that policy.

Ideally, I think all courses should be designed to adapt for online learning and if some courses must be taught synchronized, there should be a notice on that before the semester starts. However, at this point, I think what could help is a formal statement from university officials that acknowledges that a time zone difference is to be accommodated and encourages students to contact instructors for accommodations.

However, at this point, I think what could help is a formal statement from university officials that acknowledges that a time zone difference is to be accommodated and encourages students to contact instructors for accommodations.

We need to respect people’s decisions. If international students think staying in their home country is the best for them, then what others can do is to support them. To adjust to remote learning, I selectively chose courses with lectures in the morning and during last semester, I dropped one to cope.

Those are my efforts and I’m sure others are trying their own ways to thrive. But personal efforts or merely encouraging instructors to accommodate simply isn’t enough.

There needs to be a policy change that allows tests and exams to be accommodated for if there is any inconvenience caused by time zone difference. This problem is systematic and it deserves a systematic solution.

Image courtesy of Graphic by Sybil Simpson

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