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What Will Happen to the Most Vulnerable Student Populations During the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis?

According to the Johns Hopkins Research Collective, as of Wednesday the coronavirus (COVID-19) has affected 124,564 people and resulted in 4,373 deaths. The United States has about 1,050 confirmed cases and 29 reported deaths. It is clear that higher education was not ready for the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Over the last few days, hundreds of colleges and universities have decided to encourage students to move out as soon as possible and handle the remainder of the academic semester online. While major precautions are necessary to help avoid making this public health crisis any worse, the announcements have made one thing clear: institutions assume that students will be able to figure out where to live, how to eat, and how to finish the semester in a matter of days.

Soon after Harvard announced its plans in response to the COVID-19 crisis, many students questioned what will happen to international students, students who may not have a home to go to, or students who will have unreliable or no access to internet. While Harvard and many other schools have included messages that appropriate accommodations will be made to those that might face these circumstances, not having a clear plan is certainly unnerving to these students.

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice has highlighted food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness affecting higher education students for years (see their recent national report here). At a time where higher education is beginning to recognize food and housing insecurity among its students, now is a great time to demonstrate thoughtful and reassuring measures for students who may face these types of issues.

Andrew MartinezAndrew Martinez

Online instruction is the obvious solution to provide instruction for the remainder of the semester, but what happens to students who do not have access to internet at home? How about if they do not have laptops or access to a library? Will faculty be held accountable for the quality of online-instruction? Is that even fair without the appropriate training? However, what I find to be more imperative is the livelihood of vulnerable student populations.

Some announcements have encouraged students not to return to campus from Spring Break. What happens to the students who never left campus because they have no where to go to? The discourse of on-campus housing and food insecurity during short academic breaks (Fall break, Thanksgiving break, and Spring break) have continuously brought up the short-comings of on-campus support for international and low-income. Imagine the stress of having to figure out where to live and eat for several months. For many students on financial aid, their living arrangements and meal plan on campus may very well be the most secured they have felt in years. What happens when they no longer have access to that?

Again, I recognize that many institutions are developing plans and accommodations for students who may not be able to “go home” suddenly. However, I want to emphasize that the burden to figure things out should not be placed on the student. At the very least, institutions should inform their students of the options that they are working on rather than suggesting for students to contact a specific department to figure out arrangements. It is my hope that students will not need to “prove” they absolutely need accommodations in order to receive them.

Higher education leaders are dealing with how to aid in efforts to prevent this disease from spreading while continuing academic instruction. These decisions have major ramifications for the local economies of the institution and the livelihood of their students and the surrounding community. Institutions must also make tough decisions on how to deal with workers who are hourly and depend on dining halls to be open or campus services to be on-going. To me, what is most glaring about this crisis is how much of a burden it places on the most vulnerable populations.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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