Serving vulnerable student populations during COVID-19 crisis response

Expert Insight

Serving vulnerable student populations during COVID-19 crisis response

Students, faculty and staff in higher education are facing a taxing and uncertain time as institutions close their doors and move towards remote learning. The most vulnerable student populations, including students who are financially insecure, students with difficult circumstances at home, and students already struggling with mental health challenges will be hit the hardest during this transition. Below, learn how institutions are serving the students who may be most vulnerable as they lose access to on-campus resources.

1. Provide financially insecure students with essential equipment to learn from home

At Shoreline Community College, located twelve miles North of Seattle, 42 percent of students receive Pell grants. Staff at Shoreline knew many low-income students would not have access to computers or reliable internet connection at home, so the college repurposed 70 laptops from its computer labs for students to borrow. Similarly, Wichita State University purchased 150 cellular hotspots to loan to students and instructors without reliable internet access at home.

Companies like Spectrum and Comcast are also offering 60 day free broadband packages to low-income students and families.

2. Allow the most vulnerable students to remain on campus

Institutions like Harvard, Amherst, Grinnell, and Iowa State created a petition process for students with extenuating circumstances to stay on campus. At Amherst College, students who petitioned to stay could not leave campus for spring break in order to reduce the risk of contagion. Larger institutions, like the University of Maine and Michigan State University, are accommodating a larger number of students who chose to remain on campus by keeping some campus facilities like residence halls and dining halls open. 

For students who are able to leave campus, but don’t have the resources to transport all their belongings back home, companies like UHAUL are providing 30 days free-self storage.  

3. Meet requirements for students to receive federal work-study wages

The Department of Education released guidance on March 20 that institutions can continue to pay students federal work study wages while the institution is closed. To continue paying students, the institution must continue to pay its other employees and meet its institutional wage share requirement. While the original guidance on March 5 limited flexibility to students who were already enrolled in a term when COVID-19 related interruptions occurred, the flexibility is now extended to students who enroll in payment periods that begin on or before June 1, 2020.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Cornell University created FAQ pages that outline how students can continue to work or, if unable to work, still be paid for their federal work-study positions. The FAQ pages make it easier for students to access up-to-date information quickly and decrease staff workload by helping students answer questions independently.

4. Connect students with community services

Students at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine created a live Google Doc with resources for students and community members living in New York City. The doc includes information on where to access childcare, food, and housing support within New York in addition to providing answers to frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and where to receive testing. 

5. Tap into alumni support

At institutions across the country, including MIT, Bennington, Amherst, and Middlebury, alumni have created online, collaborative spreadsheets where individuals can offer housing, transportation, childcare, and emergency funds to students in need. At MIT, over 700 individuals committed to providing some form of assistance to students, demonstrating alumni desire to help those struggling with campus closures.

Beyond crowdsourced information, some institutions have refocused fundraising efforts to support vulnerable students.

6. Promote student mental health off campus

As many students lose access to on-campus mental health services, institutions have moved to digital alternatives in order to provide students with the mental health support they need. Ohio State’s Chief Wellness Officer created an online portal for children, students, faculty and staff that highlights resources for dealing with anxiety during the pandemic. Institutions can also partner with vendors like TAO (Therapy Assistance Online) to better provide technology-based therapy options on a larger scale. 

Taking care of the most at-risk students is critical for institutions’ success as they respond to COVID-19. By connecting students with essential resources, institutions can help students persist and graduate despite the additional hurdles created by the coronavirus outbreak. 

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