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6 Ways COVID-19 and Social Justice Intersect in Higher Ed

Financial pressures, political unrest, health concerns — here's how the pandemic and concurrent equity challenges have impacted both institutions and their students.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted higher education in myriad ways — and in particular has laid bare long-standing issues of social justice and the digital divide. Enrollments have declined as students have faced financial pressures, political and social unrest, health concerns and more. In a recent session at this year's SXSWedu conference, Mark Milliron, senior vice president and executive dean of Teachers College at Western Governors University, Suzanne Walsh, president of Bennett College, and William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College, discussed how the intersection of the pandemic and equity challenges have impacted their institutions and their students.  

1) First-time college students are falling behind. The state of Texas has seen a significant reduction in the number of first-time college students — particularly in community colleges, according to Serrata. At El Paso Community College this past fall, he said, "Our first-time-in-college enrollment was down 31 percent. We've offered about $500,000 more in aid to those students. And what we saw is that they accepted about $4.5 million less. So they went through the process of applying for admission, applying for financial aid, we made the offer and they just did not enroll." Many students may be waiting for the pandemic to pass — for a return to "normal" — before returning to school, he hypothesized.

What's more, students who fail to enroll in college the summer or fall after high school graduation are far less likely to ever achieve a higher education credential. "That's a real concern that we have lost the class of 2020," said Serrata. "And quite frankly, given the length of the pandemic, we're worried that we may miss the class of 21."

2) Student health concerns have stymied reopening plans. Last June, Bennett College was the first in North Carolina to announce that instruction would take place fully online in the fall. "We are an historically Black college for women," explained Walsh. "And we know that a majority of our students come to us with the comorbidities that make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. We had to decide, when there are cases on campus, will we be able to isolate or quarantine? Will we be able to support those students when they're ill on campus?" In many ways, she pointed out, higher ed institutions have become part of the public health system, tasked with managing students' health in unprecedented times. "With that in mind, with our students' comorbidities in mind, we just can't open, we cannot provide in-person, we cannot provide that kind of space that's needed and care that's needed."

3) Campuses are under pressure to respond to political and social unrest. In the midst of wrestling with the pandemic, colleges have also had to tackle social justice issues such as the George Floyd killing in May 2020. "The first thing we had to do was have an open conversation about it, and acknowledge the tragic events of that horrible day," recalled Serrata. "We are a majority minority institution. We wanted to make sure that everyone felt comfortable in our institution, and at the same time express that we are an institution of higher learning — therefore we do debate things, but we debate them with civility. And we debate them with an understanding that everyone's opinion matters."

In particular, institutional leaders need time to reflect before responding to such events. "That's the tough thing during these moments — everybody expects you to put out the immediate statement," said Walsh. While it's easy to say something inconsequential on day one or day two, she pointed out, "It's a lot harder to sit with the discomfort and the agony and the frustration, and then say, 'Wait, now I have something and I'm going to say something that adds to the conversation.'"

4) Institutions may never get back to 100 percent face-to-face instruction. Pre-pandemic, 91 percent of El Paso Community College students took face-to-face courses, Serrata said. But while the college has plans to return to in-person instruction this fall, "We don't anticipate that we'll ever get back to that level again. We're looking at trying to go forward with 60, 65 percent face-to-face." With some portion of remote learning here to stay, issues of digital equity and access remain a challenge. "We've issued a significant number of devices, we've issued hot spots, we're trying to make sure that we're adhering to our students' needs, and yet we're seeing students choosing not to participate," he noted. "The aid is out there. How do we engage that student population? How do we ensure that they participate?"

"We have to take digital equity seriously in terms of people being able to access higher education," added Milliron. "We can see now what a path forward is going to look like. But there's work between now and the fall."

5) Vaccine hesitancy must be addressed. Bennett College is working to build up health literacy among its campus community. "We have some pieces to do, which are about education about the vaccine, before we can even talk about how are we going to implement protocols related to the vaccine," admitted Walsh. "We're trying to bring that information forward to the community in a way that is, quite frankly, not another roundtable with experts. Because our students don't want to watch a roundtable with experts. They appreciate expertise, but they don't want to watch an hour of that. How do we make the information accessible? How do we have peer educators? We're really leaning into trying to help our students understand this moment and educate each other, and thinking about how we do it in a way that they can receive the information and retain it."

6) Mental health is critical for everyone. To help reduce students' cognitive load, Bennett College switched from a traditional 16-week semester to three "mini-mesters" in which students take only two courses at a time. "We saw students were stopping out or dropping out mid-semester," Walsh said. "And sometimes I think this is because they're taking five classes for 16 weeks, and the idea that I'm only midway there, and I still have more to do, is overwhelming. If we care about health and well-being, what does that mean structurally for the college? What does that mean in terms of residence halls and dining halls, and also your course schedule? All of those things need to come together to really help students."

While students are a top concern, the stress of the pandemic also weighs on faculty and staff. "We spend a lot of time thinking about students — we still care about students," said Walsh. "But we have to be able to support the folks who are supporting our students." In particular, campus leaders need psychological stamina to weather this storm. "A lot of people say these are very lonely jobs, because you're making very difficult decisions," she continued. "As a leader, you have [the weight of] everybody else's emotional stuff on you. Yes, we're looking out for our employees, yes, I prioritize employees. But I'm also looking around to say, okay, who's in my support network, because this is hard, and it's getting harder."

"Emotional contagion is real," asserted Milliron. "This is stress, and it's amplifying and attempts to go up and down across the board. One of the first steps is to name it: To tame it, you just have to call it out and say, this is a real thing." His recommendations: Get into the rhythms of self-care, introspection and connecting with one another. Find your "warm demanders": people you trust to push you forward in a positive way. "Warm demanders are friends and colleagues who are able to give you that hug, but then give you that push. They will hear you and they'll let you reflect and you can process with them, but then there is a 'You've got to get back at it.' Those warm demanders in your life really matter."

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