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When Campus Closes

Early and accurate communication, with clear connection to resources, will help vulnerable students — and all students — navigate disruption

March 15, 2020
A walkway and buildings on a typical college campus

As many colleges and universities begin to close for the coming weeks or for the semester to contain the spread of coronavirus, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Anthony Jack stresses the importance of helping students who need an exit strategy.

Jack, a sociologist who studies the experiences of first-generation college goers and low-income undergraduates, shares tips on how colleges and universities can talk to their students, help them prepare, and offer support during this uncertain time. 

Q: What considerations do colleges and universities need to take into account when deciding to close?

Jack: Colleges must treat the public health issue at hand, but what they cannot do is ignore the social inequality that is exacerbated by this pandemic. There are students on campus who are economically disadvantaged, as well as those who have fraught relationships with their parents for religious, political, gender, and sexuality related reasons. There are students in the foster care system. These students must be seen as a vulnerable population in a moment like this, just as much as those students who are from countries that are level three crisis centers. Something all these different groups of students have in common is that either they can’t get home or they have no home to go to. We must treat this situation in a way that looks at who is vulnerable, versus who is observably affected. Often it’s the invisible population who are the most disadvantaged in moments like this.

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Think strategically about the most vulnerable students. Instead of using them as an outlier, use them as the target students for support. Policies designed specifically for vulnerable students will cast a wider safety net to help all students.

Q. What type of supports should colleges and universities offer in this circumstance?

Jack: As always, I think colleges and universities must ensure that they are meeting students’ basic needs. If any decision that colleges are making is going to affect students’ access to basic needs, then they need to put measures in place to shore up that safety net. Housing and food security are two of the most fundamental basic needs that colleges meet on a daily basis for many students. To take out their safety net is to put those students into danger. 

If colleges are planning to shut down campus, ask yourself, does that automatically mean you have to close campus? For some communities the answer is yes. For others it's not. What are the risks and benefits of keeping at least one dorm or two dorms open? Can you reduce density of students but also not place vulnerable students into harm's way? 

Second, if you are going to close campus, what are the ways you can actually help students get home or at least off campus safely? In a college’s communication with students, and especially those students who are on full financial aid or who meet your criteria for whatever need-based financial aid, outline specifically what you are able to do for them with respect to access to funds for travel, support for moving out, extra time to move out or a residency on a campus during the shutdown.

What you can’t do is expect that this student population will ask for help if they need it, because I also know from my research that there may be many students who are afraid to ask, especially in rapid, ever-changing situations such as this. There are going to be those who are so overwhelmed by what's going on, let alone the need to ask for support, that they're not going to do so. 

Colleges can enlist alumni — both locally and globally. What are the resources that you can ask the alumni to help with, to ease students’ transition back home in moments like this? Can they help students find jobs to actually give support to families on a more financial level? Can alumni help with storage? People are going to be gone for three or more months. This is a public health issue that many people are grappling with, and finding a job may not be a top priority for many people, but many students are a key source of support for their families. 

Q. How can college and university administrators and educators create the right messages in this situation? 

Jack: You have to think strategically about the most vulnerable students. Instead of using them as an outlier, use them as the target students for support. If colleges develop and roll out policies to help a student who’s in the foster care system, for example, then they will draft a much stronger and wider safety net to help all students — rather than if they had used an upper-middle-class student who has access to funds and/or good relationships with their families as the baseline. 

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In communication with students, especially students on full financial aid, outline specifically what you are able to do for them with respect to access to funds for travel, support for moving out, or housing alternatives.

Q. What else can help? 

Jack: Bear the brunt of coordinating the move-out. When possible, contact local movers and hire them to help students move out. Call local storage facilities and put a hold on available spots. This will help allay the stress of so many students, because if you don’t have access to a car or don’t have access to money to do certain things, you will feel absolutely lost. 

During the week that schools are shutting down, it would be ideal to cancel all classes for at least three days, so that students can have a chance to move out and to make plans without the worry of also taking classes in the at moment. 

Many students do not have access to emergency funds or reserves to pay for unexpected expenses. Email students directly, especially the students on full financial aid, and spell out how the college will help. When possible, link them directly with their financial aid contact so they have a specific person to talk to.

Additionally, colleges must make sure that students understand their health insurance coverage and how it transfers off campus. Importantly, be explicit. Don’t assume students remember what was outlined in orientation. Have students get a three-month supply of medication, where possible, before leaving campus. Have them transfer medications to local pharmacies. Help them connect either with online counseling/therapy sessions (where possible) or with trained individuals in their local areas. 

What about technology, as colleges and university courses move online? 

Jack: You can't just switch to online classes if you don’t have access to the Internet. When I was younger, I didn't have that access. Even though it’s more ubiquitous now, I’m pretty sure that many people will need to flock to Starbucks and McDonald’s to access their classes, especially as libraries close. It is my hope that broadband companies will open access to their public network apps. 

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Read more in our ongoing series, Confronting the Coronavirus Outbreak, on how schools and communities can prepare and respond, support young people, build resilience, and keep the learning going.

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