Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to close colleges without hurting vulnerable students

When schools like Harvard and Amherst shut down over coronvirus fears, they may be leaving students homeless

Harvard University asked its students not to return to campus after spring break. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

On Monday afternoon, Amherst College notified every student that they had one week to pack up and leave campus, with the expectation they wouldn’t 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 couldn’t afford a plane ticket, or students for whom their on-campus work-study job made the difference between whether they would have enough food to eat. Yes, Amherst is rich, but that doesn’t mean students are rich. Fifty-six percent receive aid, and many have to take out additional loans. Like nearly every school, it’s packed with economically vulnerable students for whom the campus may be their only home and 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 organizing an impromptu sit-in to demand answers. John Kim, a second-semester senior philosophy major and one of the organizers, told me he and his peers felt like “sitting ducks waiting for the institutions to respond to all these logistical considerations, which seemingly they hadn’t taken into consideration when they sent the email out.”

If you can work from home, you should. Now.

Harvard University followed suit the next day, sending an 8:30 a.m. email announcing the closure of campus next week. Again, worried students said they felt the university launched the change without a clearly articulated plan for vulnerable students. An email 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 email 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 health-care 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 don’t have a home to go back to.

Both Amherst and Harvard are rich, residential schools, but their students aren’t all rich. What’s more, these two schools are in the leading edge of over 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 novel coronavirus. 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 they 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.

The coronavirus could hit the U.S. harder than other wealthy countries

Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, has been studying inequality and U.S. higher education for years. Over email, she told me, “Millions of college students were facing food and/or housing insecurity before COVID19 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 that she can’t 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 has told her what will happen with her labs (which can’t be transitioned online), but also she has “2 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’s 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. 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 don’t know what’s 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’s 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’s the right move, so long as all students can access it. NYU Gallatin, a small college contained within the larger NYU structure, sent an email 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 clear that social distancing is a necessary part of our response to an outbreak. The goal now is to ensure we don’t 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 didn’t know whether he’d be allowed to stay on campus. He said he has “no anchor. No sense of what’s going to anchor us. Everything feels so transient and lifted up beyond my control.”

Read more:

Why the coronavirus response seems so outsize

The silver lining of the market crash: making the wealthy worry more about coronavirus

Boris Johnson’s master class in how not to respond to an outbreak