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In Response to the Coronavirus, Colleges Must Balance Safety and Equity

March 17th, 2020

By Rich Nickel

The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced institutions of higher education to make difficult decisions about the remainder of the spring term. Colleges across the country are deciding whether (or when) to curtail regular class schedules, cancel them altogether, move classes to an online format, or close their campuses entirely. It’s hard to see how every college student in the country won’t face some kind of academic disruption within the coming weeks.

Here in Arizona, the largest universities are monitoring the situation carefully and responsibly. For the time being, they have shifted to online classes instead of in-person instruction but have also decided to keep their campuses as open as possible and will continue to provide basic resources and services for many students. This is critical for those who depend on campus resources for both their academic development and their well-being. Although the universities are facilitating social distancing by encouraging all students to “go home” if they can, they are continuing to provide basic services—such as housing, dining, internet, and health care—at various levels. For students who are unable to relocate or who simply do not have the resources available to succeed off campus, this is crucial.

The crisis has highlighted the extent to which the decision to close campuses, or drastically reduce services, disproportionately affects the students who have the greatest need for those resources, services, and infrastructure their colleges and universities provide. For some students, the decision to close campus housing effectively renders them homeless.

It is not my purpose to second-guess the closures and alternative class formats that more and more colleges and universities across the country are implementing. Certainly, these decisions are the product of cautious deliberation and will rank among the most difficult that institutional leaders ever make. Instead, I want to call attention to the needs of the students who are especially vulnerable during this time. Students whose needs for housing, shelter, employment, transportation, and health care remain even after their institution has temporarily closed. Even at community colleges with no residential student populations to speak of, the campus closures can severely restrict students’ access to key resources, such as the only reliable source of internet and computing devices they have. This makes it particularly challenging for them to keep up with their classes and stay connected in a fully online format.

During less chaotic times this vulnerability may be less visible, but it has always been there. Large numbers of students do not have a safety net. For many low-income students, even a single flat tire can be enough to destabilize them financially, jeopardize their ability to go to work or get to class, and ultimately, can result in them leaving school entirely. Having the very foundation of their lives—school, jobs, support services, relationships, community—rocked by the pandemic is an upheaval of much greater magnitude.

As the situation progresses, colleges and universities—as well as federal and state governments—will be judged by how well they care for the needs of their most vulnerable students and community members. They should not have to do this alone. College Success Arizona has our own role to play in providing vital supports to the students who need them most. Through the end of this academic year and into the summer, our College Success Arizona and Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN) advisers will be in close communication with every student who has a relationship with us. We will work with them to assess their ongoing ability to complete the semester and enroll for the next academic year. We will also help students who need additional supports to identify resources and address obstacles that may prevent successful completion.

Other leading community-based organizations, like the Arizona Community Foundation, are creating COVID-19 emergency response funds to support non-profit groups that are addressing the needs of those impacted by the virus. College Success Arizona is committed to working with the non-profit community to help students persist through this difficult situation.

Now, more than ever, is a time for us to prioritize non-academic needs and safety—safety not just from contagion but also from being cut adrift without support. This will challenge us all, but it is our obligation to do all we can to ensure that partial or full campus closures do not unintentionally foreclose on students’ futures.

Rich Nickel is president and CEO of College Success Arizona, where he leads the organization toward its goal of assisting all Arizonans in gaining access to, and successfully attaining, a college credential. 

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