COVID-19 and Disparities in Higher Education

In March of this year the world shifted in a way that we’ve never experienced.

A global pandemic unlike any other would change the world in so many ways.

Many Americans shrugged off the warnings to self-quarantine and limit their movement to essential needs only. After all, America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, right?

To suggest an immediate lifestyle of isolation to a country of people who are accustomed to doing as they pleased proved difficult. Shortly thereafter, the nation’s education system moved into immediate lockdown and campus evacuations.

This meant that all students, both domestic and international, had to return home. This action would cause a series of concerns not previously considered to surface.

Global Pandemic and Campus Life

According to Goldrick-Rab and colleagues (2019), 18% of their survey participants at 2-year colleges and 14% of participants at 4-year colleges are housing insecure. Many of these students rely heavily on university housing for food and lodging. Universities began evacuating and, in some cases, providing students only 48–72 hours to vacate the premises.

What would become of the students who were housing and food insecure? Universities often provide campus pantries for these students. What is not publicly known is if universities also provide emergency housing in instances such as COVID-19.

Also, what happens to international students who are in the United States on student visas? As campuses evacuated and residence halls closed, international students were left without many options and had to return home. International students remain uncertain if they will be able to return to campus this fall. What will this mean for enrollment? How will this pandemic affect university budgets, considering that many international students are full-pay students?

International students immediately had to scramble to make flights in or out of the country before they were cancelled. These students also have indicated that they have not been successful in their attempts to contact U.S. embassies (Federis, 2020). As the likelihood of suspended services at embassies increases, the American Council on Education predicts a 15% drop in enrollment and a 25% drop in international enrollment for fall 2020 (Federis, 2020).

COVID-19 Exposed Educational Biases and Assumptions

The world as we knew it will never be the same. As an African American male in higher education, I am completely at peace with this.

Higher education, as proven by the creation of the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory by doctoral student Joy Melody Woods and Dr. Sharde Davis, has always been unkind to individuals who look like us. This pandemic allowed inside access for the world to also view how marginalized students, staff, and faculty are treated. It has allowed us to see the gaps that exist in the system of education and how universities make sweeping assumptions about their students. For example, an emerging issue in both the K–12 and higher education sectors is the assumption that all students have access to laptops and personal mobile devices to do their work.

It was also assumed that all students had access to Wi-Fi services. I learned from some of my own undergraduate students that they were writing course papers on cellular phones, borrowing Internet from neighbors, or having to log on at a church to complete their work.

A few of my students discussed how the pandemic forced them back into intolerable living circumstances that tested their already-fragile mental health. Other students were thrust back into the role of familial caregiver to aging grandparents while juggling 19 credit hours. What this pandemic also showed us is where institutions place their values. Faculty and staff members were furloughed or asked to reduce working hours to reduce their pay but remain employed (Nietzel, 2020).

These reductions are imbalanced from an ethical perspective and are felt mostly by employees with lower salaries (Nietzel, 2020). As an educator who has previously been on the wrong side of a budget cut, the people who take the greatest hit are often those closer in proximity to the average student. It’s my opinion that athletic coaches and university presidents who make upwards of a million dollars or more in salary should always take the greatest hit in these instances. The rationale for this is that the loss of income would not have as great of an impact on their living circumstances. However, the employee who is a single parent making considerably less and furloughed will now have to acquire other resources simply to survive. Where is the middle ground?

A Demand for Action Because A Call Just Won’t Do!

Racial tensions in the world are at an all-time high. Police brutality and racist occurrences are happening in plain sight, and ignoring them or playing obtuse are no longer acceptable practices.

The system of education may encounter a rude awakening as well as the forced overhaul of whitewashed educational practices. As we consider how we will now envision education, it is time that the voices of the marginalized be placed in course syllabi, guest lectures, university announcements, and in the classroom. For far too long we have allowed the privilege of whiteness to be the barometer for how we measure all things related and pertaining to education.

We have witnessed our peers who are Black women be ignored, talked over, and disregarded. We have watched our disabled peers be overlooked by ableism. Many of us have experienced the unfavorable denial of tenure based on unfair, biased student evaluations that negatively impact professors of color. We are taking a stand and saying “no more!” We will no longer be pushed aside, disregarded, labored without pay or for low wages, and abused. The time is up for the reign of privilege, White supremacy, White manning, and White fragility.

Institutions and institutional leadership will acknowledge these harmful practices and move to rectify them. We will no longer accept empty promises, carefully worded memos, or text messages from our fragile “allies.” Which side of history will you be remembered for standing on, and will you be able to reconcile within yourself if you make the wrong choice? The choice belongs to all of us.

Frederick Engram Jr.Dr. Frederick Engram, Jr. is an expert of graduate enrollment and diversity, equity, and inclusion. He is a qualitative researcher who grounds his research in critical race theory. He held faculty appointments at American University and Radford University and is now Assistant Professor of Practice Department of Criminology and Center for African American Studies at University of Texas-Arlington. He focuses his research on the lived experience of African American graduate students enrolled at PWIs (predominately white institutions). He is a published scholar and a contributing author of the book No Ways Tired: The Journey For Professionals of Color in Student Affairs: Vol II (2019), and the article “An Act of Courage: Providing Space for African American Graduate Students to Express Their Feelings of Disconnectedness” (2020). He has published several other articles for Blavity and Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

References

Click the image above to register or view (if after 8/5) Dr. Engram’s webinar.

COVID-19: A Professor’s Perspective

Cosco-TaraTara Cosco, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Education at Milligan College. She has been a KDP member for more than 20 years and serves as the Counselor of the Alpha Iota Iota Chapter.

 

 

Initially, when we heard about the Coronavirus, the college was on spring break, so to be honest I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. I was enjoying my time off.

Then, the college announced we had an extra week of spring break.

Naturally, I reacted joyfully. I took long walks in the park with my co-worker and enjoyed the extra time off from work.

Then, the college announced we needed to transition to online teaching for the rest of the semester.

What? I better look into what this is truly all about. The college is one of the last places to close. When public schools close, we tend to stay open if at all possible, so this must be serious, I thought.

I wasn’t too worried about the transition to teaching online. One of my classes was already online, and most of my materials are housed online anyway.

The first week of online teaching was okay. I added assignments to make up for the in-class work I would have typically given them. I wasn’t feeling the stress I assumed some of my other colleagues were, because I love technology and use it often anyway.

Then, we had an area meeting, and the realities of what others were facing became apparent.

My chair talked about the students’ fears about graduation and how they would finish the hours needed in the schools as a student teacher and intern. We were told many of the mentor teachers were now having to homeschool their own children and at the same time teach their students. Spouses were out of work and tensions were high. My heart started to ache for the students who dreamed of their senior year with friends and their graduation celebration. The moment they had all worked so hard for was now something that we feared would not happen.

The second week of class in quarantine, I decided to hold a Zoom meeting and allow students to gather together virtually if they could. I allowed those who were unable to attend the virtual class to watch the replay later.

I was thrilled to see my students’ faces again! I had missed them terribly!

This pandemic had taught me that there was a lot in this world I took for granted. I took for granted the everyday conversations, interactions with colleagues, students, friends, and family. We held class as usual, only through a screen instead of in person. It worked well! I was pleased with the technology, the ability to share my screen, and interact as if we were in an actual classroom.

It is now early April, and we are starting a month-long lockdown.

I am missing my colleagues, students, friends, and loved ones terribly!

I miss eating out, social gatherings, a friendly hug. The news tells of projected deaths and times are scary.

I hope everyone stays safe and we return to normal soon with an attitude of gratitude.

For e-learning resources and a community of peers, visit KDP’s website at http://www.kdp.org.

Seeing Past the Problem

My first night of teaching at a small liberal arts college, I walked into the classroom with trepidation and—after being sassed—walked out with disgust. The second night, I called security to escort a student from the room. After only two class sessions, I had had enough. I was ready to give up, except then I remembered that I needed to get paid.

By November, it was really over for me. I called my mom and said; “I quit!”

She replied, “Really? ’Cause you have no money.”

I grumbled.

While each class was becoming easier and lesson planning was doable, the semester was still not going well. I was teaching Freud’s psychosexual stages of development, which should have interested my students. One night, they were particularly rambunctious. Why couldn’t they focus? Why didn’t they believe in themselves? Suddenly, an epiphany! Were they really being rude? Maybe they were as insecure and scared as I was.

“Professor Simmons, are we done? Can we go?”

I looked up, waited a beat, and finally said; “Put your books away.”

They froze. They were sure I was punishing them with a test. I asked them to take out a sheet of paper. They did, amongst moans and groans.

I continued, “Please put your name and date at the top of the paper. Write the names of each student in this class, leaving space between them. Then write five positive adjectives about each person.

D’s hand went up. “Professor Simmons, do they have to be positive?”

“Yes, they have to be positive.”

Another hand went up. “What is an adjective?”

I defined it.

Another hand. “Do you really want us to do this?”

I took a deep breath. “Yes, I want you to do this.”

Twenty minutes passed. Amazingly, some of these students had to conjure up positive scripts among the many negative ones about themselves and others. I dismissed the class early.

I hopped on the train. “What the heck am I going to do with these? There’s only one more class before Thanksgiving.” After an hour and a half commute on three trains to teach a 3-hour class that met 15 times a semester for which I was paid only minimally, I ducked into a store and bought note cards. Once home, I addressed each one of my students: “Dear ________, The Introduction to Psychology class is thankful for you because you are _________________.” After an hour, with sores on my writing hand, I looked at them and smiled.

I was no longer angry or fearful. I was finally hopeful. The next week, I explained that I had been frustrated, and apologized. Then I distributed the cards. As students read what their peers thought of them, a smile came to some faces or a tear ran down a cheek.

When I taught that night, the class listened, asked questions and, for the first time, did their work without complaint. I taught at that college for another 4 years.

A few years later, there was a knock at my door. I smiled when I saw him. He had started as my most troublesome student and left my best. He thanked me and gave me a gift.

As we chatted, he opened his wallet. Folded in his billfold was the card. He said, “Whenever I feel bad about myself, I take out this card and I remember that I am all of these things and more.” He wasn’t alone. It had been a defining point. He and every single student from that class successfully graduated.

Teaching is not always easy. Yet, educators must see past the problem and have hope.

 

Janelle C. SimmonsJC Simmons Photo is President/CEO of Speak Forth, LLC, and a Doctoral Candidate at Liberty University Online. She can be reached by email at speakforthllc@gmail.com.