We’ve reached the point in this national crisis in which our systems start to feel the strain of dealing with individual struggles on an individual basis. Higher education isn’t exempt from that. We’ve poured our compassion and our care and our desperate need to help our students succeed into switching four or more courses each to online delivery, into locating, loaning, buying laptops for students who are now stuck at home with no technology access, into making sure our policies and standards are flexible and aligned with our goals…
And here we are. On my campus, we’re five weeks into online learning, and we’re five weeks into seeing which students are likely to succeed, and we’re five weeks into some students being MIA, and we’re five weeks into some real hit-or-miss results on student success. Our existing systems are supporting students who we are usually well equipped to support. Our existing systems and systemic adaptations are, pretty predictably, working really well for some, and beginning to fail the students who were poorly equipped to succeed, who we are poorly equipped to support in this crisis.
We don’t have their stories, yet. The oral historians and anthropologists are still starting to see results from journalists and other primary sources, and so we don’t even have a cultural snapshot yet. I think we can comfortably extrapolate in building wireframes and personas, regardless.
We can envision a first year student who has gone home to their family’s apartment, and, as their single mother works at a grocery store and their school-age siblings aren’t in school, is now doing childcare all day long, while expected to finish five classes online, with only one semester of college experience in their toolkit, while worrying that their mom is going to get the virus and bring it home to all of them, and how will they support and care for everyone, as the eldest?
We can envision a student who has gone home to the childhood home that was the locus of their personal mental health struggles, struggles that college had helped them heal and reshape, and is now not only “at home” but is ordered to shelter in place, not leave the house, and is cut off from the support systems they’ve built for themselves, including their friends, their new home, and their therapists, while attempting to complete five now-online courses being delivered by faculty who vary wildly from “we’re all in this together” to “just read the book and take the test.”
We can envision a student who went home, downstate, to find that three aunts, two cousins, and their grandfather all have COVID-19, and some are now hospitalized, and several intubated, while hearing that those who are on ventilators are probably never coming off them, while also trying to do the research papers and group projects for four upper-division courses they need in order to graduate in May.
We can envision a student who has gone home to a home that should seem safe, but which is also the home of a family member who has been abusing them emotionally and verbally since they were a small child, and now they’re so paralyzed by the cultural trauma of the pandemic and the personal trauma of that “home” that they haven’t done more than log into the online course shell, because every time they try to participate they just can’t find any faith in their own voice.
We can envision a student who has gone home for a spring break which seemed like business-as-usual, and in the course of that week of vacation with old friends from high school getting coffee at their favorite diner, contracted COVID19, and maybe like so many 20-somethings they shook it off easily, but maybe their little brother also got it, or their father, or their best friend who’s a Type 1 diabetic, and that person has died, and now they’re trying desperately to make room in their so-completely-disrupted life to finish their academic year, and it’s not working.
We can envision a student who went home and feels lucky they have a good place to go to, but whose laptop is old and kind of sucks, and they’re really struggling to stream any of the content for class but they feel like they should be able to solve this and make it work because they’re nowhere near as bad off as their roommate was when they were leaving campus, so they’re just trying to make do but they keep failing the quizzes because they can’t see the lessons.
We can envision a student who has gone home and is doing online learning and has found that the learning disability they thought they knew how to manage is, in fact, completely unmanageable with their current tools in the current environment, and their parents are too stressed out by the pandemic and its impacts on their family to be able to help them.
We can envision a student whose family didn’t think they should go to college so far away in the first place, and now that they’re home, doesn’t understand why they need so much time to do their schoolwork, and can’t advise them on how they should go about coping with everything that’s gone wrong, and just want to know when they’ll get a room and board refund because food is expensive and scarce, so the student doesn’t reach out to the Registrar to ask about withdrawing from a course or taking an incomplete, because the family needs to eat so all their problem-solving attention is focused on financial refund issues.
We can envision a student who went home to their family’s too-small house where they’re back to sharing a room with the sibling who was so psyched to finally have their own personal space, and where they remember how many people helped them succeed, from guidance counselors in high school to a Big Brother/Big Sister volunteer to their academic advisors once they got to college and so the last thing they want to do is ask for more help since this shouldn’t be so hard, it’s just online learning, they can do this without help this time, there’s no reason to be more of a burden than they already are.
Are any of those students from your campus likely to respond to an email from the campus listing ways that we can help them with their coursework? Are any of them proactively reading your website updates on COVID-19 policy changes to academic standards? Are any of those students likely to navigate your course catalog to find the appropriate rule and then intuit who to contact to ask that it be applied to them?
And can we all, regardless of institution, just agree that the students most likely to be affected negatively by this are also the students who are most likely to be affected negatively by the pandemic? That, as article after article after study after study after national organization after national organization has pointed out again and again, the people who higher education most need to serve are the ones least well served by our assumptions that they can figure out our systems, and who are most failed by our expectation that we should wait for them to come to us? Can we agree on that?
Well, if we can’t, then I guess there’s just nothing we can do. You obviously did all you could.
I believe we’re better than that. As educators, I believe we can keep trying to help every single one of our students. I believe there is more we can do. I believe we can knock down some of those barriers. I believe we can be proactive. We can change policies, and apply those changes with push technologies, rather than pull. We can make blanket policy/grading/advising changes based on academic analytic criteria, and then allow students to opt out. We can look for, publicize, and apply every possible leniency we can dream up, knowing that these young people are facing every possible crisis that populates our national nightmare. We can try one more phone call or text.
We can just not give up.
We cannot give up.