GENEVA, Ill. (CBS) — Students are gearing up to head back to campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

With COVID-19 precautions in place, the campus will reopen next week. But for students with physical disabilities, the future of their semester is unclear.

CBS 2’s Tara Molina on Monday sat down with students and their families, working to get a straight answer from the school.

All of this started weeks ago, when students got a letter explaining their accessible dorms would be closed this semester. They fought that and got those rooms back.

But, now it’s a fight for the services those students need.

One of those students is Ethan Olson, 19, from Geneva. Olson has a contagious laugh and a love for the U of I.

He’s an Illini basketball and football superfan, but that’s not all. Olson loves the school for its opportunity – his freedom.

“I have CP – cerebral palsy,” Olson said.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where Olson will be a sophomore, has one of the best programs in the country for students with physical disabilities.

“I hoped and prayed I would get in, and I did,” Olson said.

He added: “It got me out of the house. And I was able to figure out how I could live on my own with some support.”

Many students like Olson once didn’t know such a university education would ever be in the cards.

“When I was young, I didn’t think this was possible,” he said.

“If you would have asked me two years ago, would this be possible? I didn’t think it would,” added his mother, Kathy Olson.

That is why Ethan Olson and his family aren’t taking no for an answer.

“A month or two before classes actually start, we get shut down,” he said. “It didn’t seem right to us.”

The Olsons got a letter from the university in July explaining Ethan Olson’s accessible, specially-equipped floor would be closed. The Beckwith program, which drew the Olsons and others to the school, was to be canceled for the fall semester because of staffing issues related to COVID-19.

Families like Olson’s got together to fight that, with thousands supporting a petition online. The school agreed to open their dorms, but still won’t open the Beckwith program.

“They’re going back to the same reason and the only reason – lack of staff,” said Ethan Olson’s father, Mike Olson.

That is despite Ethan Olson, his peers, and their families, taking it upon themselves to secure the personal assistant staff – filling shifts for each student’s needs.

“The students rallied right after we were notified they were closing the programs, and within a week they had 90 perfect coverage of all the PA shifts,” Mike Olson said.

When Molina asked the university why they aren’t opening the Beckwith Program, they didn’t acknowledge all of her questions. Instead, they echoed some of what they’ve said to students and parents:

“As an institution, we have long been committed to serving students with disabilities, including through our Beckwith program. That program has many components and offers a range of services. As part of the Beckwith program, the university provides Personal Assistant (PA) care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Despite a great deal of effort by both the university, the students and their families, we have not been able to secure enough PAs to operate the Beckwith program this semester.

“There is a shortage of human service workers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened that.

“The university is not turning down state funding. Funding for people with disabilities goes directly to them. Our students who have been able to secure PA coverage are eligible for the funding, and we have assigned those students who have been able to secure PA coverage accessible rooms in our residence halls. But we cannot provide the level and quality of care necessary to operate the Beckwith program this semester.

“We will continue to try to secure PAs for the spring semester in hopes we can restart the Beckwith program then. Not offering the Beckwith program this semester has been the most heartbreaking impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for all of us. But as with all of our students, the health and safety of the students in the Beckwith program has been and continues to be a top priority for the university.”

 

“It’s disheartening,” said Kathy Olson. “You have some hope that someone is going to say yes. Look at what we’ve done. Look at what these kids have done. And it’s a no.”

Enter Illinois state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray (D-Downers Grove).

“The biggest issue here is access to education,” she said.

Stava-Murray one of a few state legislators taking a closer look at the closure of the program.

“We’re hearing the actual reason has to do with liability,” she said.

Stava-Murray explained because the program closed, the university didn’t renew its funding, and the federal dollars they usually rely on are no longer available.

“We are giving up federal match dollars by this poor decision this administration has made,” she said.

Stava-Murray is not backing down any time soon. And neither are the Olson’s, who, in the meantime are prepared to pay out of pocket to make up for services no longer covered by those federal dollars.

That is because they believe Ethan Olson and his peers should have the same opportunity to go back to school that thousands of other U of I students will next week.

“Kind of feels like we’re the other people,” Ethan Olson said. “I know I’m going.”

Families are already worrying about the future of the program – with staffing in the spring semester already brought up as a challenge.

Tara Molina