Go Home? For Some Students It's Not Easy

Student advocates say coronavirus-related directives to move off campus threaten to reinforce existing inequalities and put disproportionate burdens on low-income and international students, among others.

March 12, 2020
 
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As colleges and universities move to clear their campuses of students and offer courses online to minimize the risk of exposure to or spread of the coronavirus, many institutions have urged students to go home and remain there. But those efforts are raising concerns about students who can't just easily pick up and go or may not have an actual home to which to return.

The precautions colleges are taking are creating logistical and financial hardships, among other challenges, for low-income and other vulnerable groups of students as well as international students, including students from China, Italy or other countries with high numbers of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

“What I worry is the responses can actually exacerbate pre-existing inequalities,” said Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University whose research focuses on lower-income undergraduate students. Harvard is one of a number of institutions that have asked students not to return to campus after spring break, which starts this weekend. While Harvard said students with extenuating circumstances will be permitted to stay, they've been warned to prepare for "severely limited" campus services.

“For a lot of students, college is the only place where they have access to food on a consistent basis,” said Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press, 2019). “Oftentimes, especially at residential colleges, it’s the only place that they have shelter without the worry of disruptions in utilities, disruptions in terms of feeling unsafe.”

“To say, ‘Don’t come back after spring break,’ assumes that students leave in the first place, and that is fundamentally not true, because the reality is a significant number of students -- disproportionately those from lower-income backgrounds -- remain on campus because they can’t afford to leave, they don’t have anywhere to go or they know that home and harm are synonymous. On the last point, that last group includes those who have fraught relationships with their families for reasons from political ideology to gender roles to sexual identity.”

An additional issue will be lost wages from campus jobs, which some students use to help support their families, he said.

Jack stressed that he is not a public health scholar and cannot comment on whether universities decide to shut down campuses or keep them open.

"But in the conversations about whether to close or how to close or the manner, I really hope that students who are often invisible in those conversations are seen," he said.

U.S. representatives Karen Bass and Danny K. Davis, Democrats from California and Illinois, respectively, plan to hold a press conference at 9 o'clock this morning urging colleges to consider needs of vulnerable students, including homeless students and students who were formerly in the foster care system, in responding to the coronavirus. The press conference will be broadcast on the Facebook page of the Congressional Caucus for Foster Youth.

The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance last week saying that colleges that close their campuses midterm can continue paying federal work-study wages, provided certain conditions are met.

Many colleges that have asked students to leave campus for periods ranging from several weeks through the end of the semester have provided options for students to request permission to stay in residence halls. Some have encouraged or even strongly encouraged students to leave but given students the option to stay; others are only allowing students to stay if they successfully petition for special permission.

Not all colleges that have shifted to remote courses have asked students to leave. Northeastern University in Boston said, for example, that it was not asking students to leave and was committed to "maintaining continuity of campus life" for students who stay on campus and largely keeping staffing at normal levels.

But at some colleges that have asked students to pack their things, students are pooling resources and information to help with everything from finding rides to the airport to housing.

Harvard Primus, a student group for first-generation college students or those who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or underresourced high schools, has compiled a list of resources on everything with information such as how to apply for reimbursement of travel costs by Harvard (the university says in a FAQ it is committed to helping students meet unanticipated costs and that students on financial aid should reach out to the financial aid office) and options for storage of personal belongings. Primus also said it is partnering with the First Generation Harvard Alumni Association to help students seeking local employment in various cities.

“While many students can handle unexpected costs, this sudden change in housing highlights the large disparity within our student population concerning students’ access to disposable wealth and the resources necessary to evacuate and move off-campus,” Harvard Primus’s executive board said in a statement. “In addition to costs associated with unexpected flights home, students are being asked to ship or store all of their on-campus belongings with no promised full financial support. Students relying on term-time employment face additional financial concerns without their typical source of income in the coming months.”

“Students are expected to continue courses through online platforms and to pay the remaining tuition costs as courses will continue in this virtual format,” the statement continues. “This poses additional constraints on students who may be lacking access to high-speed internet and other necessary academic resources. Going forward, we hope that the administration takes into account the various financial and academic challenges that this could pose to students, particularly those in under-resourced communities. Classes will continue to meet as regularly scheduled this week -- meaning that the exhaustive tasks of studying and completing coursework have been made more severe by the emotional distress around the uncertainty regarding unexpected flights, storage costs, and financial burdens.”

International students at Harvard have also raised concerns, as did a student from Jamaica who took to Twitter to complain about the five-day notice given to leave the campus.

Wilder Brice, the student government president at Bucknell University, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, said the student government is drafting a plan to provide transportation and hopefully storage assistance to students, who have been told to depart their dorms by 6 p.m. on March 17. (Students who need to stay longer can submit a petition requesting special permission.)

“It’s an extreme burden on students depending on where they’re from,” Brice said. “Students are a little frustrated, and they’re freaked out.”

At Tufts University, in Massachusetts, students have organized a “mutual aid” Facebook group in which students and alumni are offering support for students who suddenly need to leave campus. Tufts announced on Tuesday night that students should plan to depart the residence halls by March 16 and to complete the remainder of the semester online.

“Last night we had people offering frequent flyer miles, airline vouchers, even just straight money,” said Marley Hillman, a junior at Tufts and one of the organizers of the Tufts Mutual Aid Facebook group. Hillman said the mutual aid group had raised more than $5,000 to distribute to students, not counting peer-to-peer contributions facilitated through the group's spreadsheets. “We’ve been able to fully cover people’s plane tickets home, and that’s been incredible. We’ve been collecting donations through Venmo, and we’ve been able to just distribute money, because one of the other things that’s going to hit vulnerable populations at Tufts pretty hard is that most students’ campus jobs are ending.”

Berea College, a tuition-free college in Kentucky where every student works on campus, announced it is ending its semester this Friday. Students were told to leave campus by Saturday, although administrators said accommodations would be made for students who can’t leave and that they would be provided alternative on-campus work placements. Students who leave the campus will also be paid their wages through the rest of the semester.

“Especially with my family being far away, I felt like Berea takes care of us every way possible,” said Ishara Nanayakkara, a senior and president of the Student Government Association. Nanayakkara was born in Virginia, but her family lives in Sri Lanka.

“I’m not sure what I should do,” she said. “Should I fly home? But flying is not safe. It’s been a struggle to figure out what to do and where to go on such short notice.”

Nanayakkara said there were many tears on campus Tuesday when the university announced plans to end the semester early.

“For most students -- freshmen and sophomores and juniors -- for them this is something like a longer summer, so they’re not too upset,” she said. “The people who are really affected are seniors who wanted to spend their months with friends and doing senior things. We feel like all that was taken away from us. Of course, it’s nobody’s fault, but you can’t help how you feel.”

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