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Covid-19 and vulnerable students

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On Monday afternoon, Amherst College notified every student that they had one week to pack up and leave campus, with the expectation that they would not be back until next school year. Anyone who wanted to stay could fill out a petition, but there was no clarity about what grounds would be sufficient for an exception to be made.

As the news of the closure spread, I began to wonder about students with no homes to go to, or who could not afford a plane ticket, or students for whom their on-campus work/study job made the difference between whether or not they would have enough food to eat.

Yes, Amherst is rich, but that doesn't mean students are rich. Fifty-six per cent receive aid, and many have to take out additional loans. Like nearly every school, it is packed with economically vulnerable students for whom the campus may be their only home and safe haven. Now, with less than a week of warning, it was all being stripped away.

Students on campus shared these concerns, first with quiet meetings among friends, then organising an impromptu sit-in to demand answers. John Kim, a second-semester senior philosophy major and one of the organisers, told me that he and his peers felt like “sitting ducks waiting for the institutions to respond to all these logistical considerations, which seemingly they had not taken into consideration when they sent the e-mail out”.

Harvard University followed suit the next day, sending an 8.30am e-mail announcing the closure of campus next week. Again, worried students said that they felt that the university launched the change without a clearly articulated plan for vulnerable students.

An e-mail to staff that was shared with me read: “The college will be able to house a very small number of students who are unable to leave campus, but only a very small number and only for the most urgent reasons.”

What reasons, one might ask, does the college find urgent? Harvard media relations directed me to the e-mail, but then did not respond to my queries.

Closing campuses may be the right thing to do to control the epidemic, helping to flatten the curve of disease transmission and thereby limiting the impact of the illness on our fragile healthcare system. But as these changes sweep across North American higher education in a matter of days, administrators need to develop proactive and transparent plans for every student, including those who do not have a home to go back to.

Both Amherst and Harvard are rich, residential, schools, but their students are not all rich. What is more, these two schools are in the leading edge of more than 50 colleges and universities beginning to shut down campuses and shift education online for a few weeks or months in an attempt to help control the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Even as I wrote this essay, more schools were closing, and my own institution — the University of Minnesota — is trying to figure out how much teaching it can shift online. The changes are rapidly spreading from small private schools, to rich private universities, to the big public universities, and off to first-generation-serving commuter campuses and tuition-driven privates.

The higher-education landscape is diverse and complex, but some needs transcend those differences. Every institution has students who cannot simply go home and transition to online education for a few weeks.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founding director of the Hope Centre for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, has been studying inequality and American higher education for years. Over e-mail, she told me: “Millions of college students were facing food and/or housing insecurity before Covid-19 hit. Dropping out over a financial shortfall as small as $500 was already too common. This pandemic is making things far worse, and I'm deeply concerned that most campuses are utterly unprepared to address students' basic needs.”

This is a story playing out at residential colleges throughout the country, and ripple effects of the uncertainty are wide. Claudine Montes, the mother of an Amherst student, wrote to me to say that she cannot afford a plane ticket for her son to come home next week, and that the announcement came without information about how housing fees and meal plans would be reimbursed.

Other students are worried about their jobs. Hailey Hayes, a senior at Ohio State, said no one had told her what would happen with her labs — which cannot be transitioned online — but also she had “two on-campus jobs [that are] my sole income and I have heard nothing from either one of my bosses on how to proceed and if I can work from home. We have over 50,000 students attending our university, the university employs thousands of students. What are we supposed to do?”

Tomoro Harris, a student at Harvard, wrote: “We're basically on our own. There's no storage, no post office on campus, nothing. When you call the financial aid office you get an automated voice message. My mom lives in a homeless shelter. Where do they think me and my family will get the money to ship back my stuff? I'm having to throw lots of things away because I have nothing else to do with it.”

He is moving in with a cousin, is worried about internet access for classes and is losing his campus job. “Everything I own has to fit in the two suitcases the airline allows me” he said. “If it doesn't fit, I can't take it. I'll have to throw everything else away.”

International students are worried about their visas if they leave. Domestic students abroad do not know what is going to happen to their credits if they return home, as instructed. Will they just lose a semester? No one seems to have these answers.

There are solutions to at least some of the problems. Shifting to remote instruction will be an enormous challenge for most faculty — I've been through online pedagogy training and it is not a transition you can make on the fly. But at least online tools will allow some semblance of education to continue, and I think that is the right move, so long as all students can access it.

NYU Gallatin, a small college contained within the larger NYU structure, sent an e-mail to faculty that included a note that they can provide laptops for students in need and are working “on ways to enable students to obtain internet access”. I hope that colleges do the same things for their underpaid adjuncts and staff.

Epidemiologists are making it clear that social distancing is a necessary part of our response to pandemic. The goal now is to ensure that we do not pass the hidden costs of that necessary move on to those least able to bear them, which starts with transparency about the decisions that institutions are making and, in this case, being prepared to support vulnerable students.

As of Tuesday afternoon, John Kim still did not know whether he would be allowed to stay on campus. He said he had “no anchor. No sense of what's going to anchor us. Everything feels so transient and lifted up beyond my control.”

David Perry is a journalist and senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota

Sudden closure: Williams College students hug after hearing the news that the college in Williamstown, Massachusetts, will switch to e-learning and they have to leave campus due to fears about coronavirus (Photograph by Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP)
Journalist and senior academic adviser: David Perry

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Published March 12, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated March 12, 2020 at 8:05 am)

Covid-19 and vulnerable students

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