As March draws to a close, college campuses across the United States are closing their doors. In the wake of COVID-19 (commonly known as the coronavirus), universities are taking precautionary measures to reduce the spread of the virus to their students. Classrooms are now virtual, club meetings are cancelled, and athletic events have no audience— all in the name of social distancing.
It is an informed decision made with good intentions. By increasing the ease of social distancing on campus, universities ensure minimal contact between potential carriers of the virus and the general student population. It is an effective preventative measure urged by medical professionals and health organizations.
But some universities are taking it one step further, requiring their students to temporarily leave campus. Harvard University, Duke University, and M.I.T are among the list of schools mandating their students to vacate for the semester. M.I.T gave its students a two-week notice, while Harvard only provided five days. With little warning, this drastic action taken by campus administration has left students in a state of chaos. Some scramble to schedule flights home, while others struggle to pack their belongings and complete work.
Despite these difficulties, certain students have an added layer of hardship, as they contend with a reality that strips them of campus resources. These students rely on the campus and campus resources for basic necessities. For some, their college meal plan is their sole source of food; for others, the university computers are their only way to access the internet; and for even more, the university is their safe haven from an otherwise volatile household.
More specifically, in requiring all students to leave campus, with minimal alternatives, universities are not serving the needs of all their students. Once again, campus administration fails its students who come from low-income, first-generation, and/or unstable households. They ignore the diverse needs of the student body, focusing on the concerns of their middle- and upper-class students.
Now, many of these universities state that exceptions will be made. However, students are reporting that for those who manage to navigate the complex petition process, exceptions are rare. Low-income students, including those who participate in work-study, are still expected to make plans to leave campus, despite the financial burden in doing so.
There seems to be no plan in place at these private institutions to compensate students for the income they would be otherwise receiving from their work-study jobs. Some schools, like Harvard University, have made no indication to provide financial assistance for those who don’t have internet access at home— internet that is necessary for these students to complete their remote learning. For students who do not feel safe at home, without hard evidence, they are not permitted to remain on campus.
It’s a system that actively works against students who do not have a support system at home or fiscal abundance.
How are students supposed to perform academically and access the work remotely when their homes aren’t equipped with the necessary resources? How are these students supposed to pay for these resources, when they do not have the financial ability to do so? How are students supposed to focus on protecting themselves from the coronavirus, when their family situation is a greater threat to their wellbeing?
The answer: they cannot.
And many universities are unable to realize this reality: students cannot afford the removal from campus, both financially and emotionally.
In all honesty, it’s almost laughable at how poorly these universities, many of them private and well-endowed, are accommodating their diverse student population in the wake of the coronavirus. Or, at least it would be if it weren’t actual student lives being affected. Surprisingly, it is the public institutions— like the UC system (University of California public schools— UCLA, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, etc.)— that have appropriately dealt with the transition to online learning amidst the coronavirus.
At these schools, the campus, campus dorms, and libraries/internet resources are still available and open to the students who choose to stay on campus. Students who do choose to go home are able to have their housing/dining refunded. Work-study students are given financial compensation for the semester if a remote alternative is unable to be created for their campus job. Students without internet or a computer are able to receive financial compensation or borrow a technological device from the university to use at home. Most academic resources are still available online, including advising and tutoring.
These are simple steps universities across the United States should be taking to ensure the continued support and success of all their students.
The universities that mandate their students to leave campus are acting in an insensitive manner; with such measures, the primary concern of students is no longer COVID-19, but where they’ll get their next meal, how they’ll pay for the internet, and whether they’re safe.
This is not how our students should be living during this uncertain time. Universities should not be leaving their students in such a vulnerable and difficult state. Luckily, there are fellow students and alumni offering housing, organizations providing internet access and technological devices, and local governments and schools providing meals. But it wouldn’t have even gotten to that point if the universities had done what they were supposed to do: provide their students— specifically, those from low-income, first-generation, and unstable households— the necessary resources for academic success and personal wellbeing.
Colleges and universities have long been heralded as places of opportunity. No matter our background, we are led to believe that college is our ticket to a better life, a better world. A world where we aren’t left in the dust. However, as the coronavirus continues to grip the nation into a state of fear and panic, the facade many universities have long maintained— being champions of those from low-income/first-generation households and of those who faced great adversity— is slowly eroding.
By transitioning to an online learning platform, universities are taking steps to maintain the health and safety of their students.
But the universities that are removing their students from campus and failing to ease the transition, are not. Those universities are only leaving behind the low-income and first-generation students who need them most— which is the last thing they should be doing.
Looks like the COVID-19 isn’t the only danger to college students. It’s the university, too.