I was a professor in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath forced months-long campus shutdowns. Being out of the office was difficult, but I had networks and money that enabled me to have a roof over my head throughout my evacuation. For many students, however, the decision to close colleges and universities, while perhaps unavoidable, compounded the disaster.
Now, as an increasing number of colleges and universities close campuses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, vulnerable students are being put at risk again.
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Elite private institutions such as Amherst College, Harvard University, and New York University along with several public university systems have responded quickly and decisively to the threat, cancelling classes or switching to online instruction, and closing campuses. Many students getting ready to leave for Spring Break have been told to stay away for an additional 14 days, to avoid the possibility they will bring the coronavirus to campus upon their return. The highly communicable virus would certainly run through the close quarters of campus dormitories, classes and teeming recreational facilities with ease. So, closing campuses isn’t a surprising choice. However, the decision doesn’t necessarily move vulnerable people out of harm’s way.
There are clear differences between an atmospheric threat like a hurricane and a pandemic: Hurricanes aren’t contagious (although the rise in frequency due to climate change might make them seem so), and the damage they cause is easier to assess. Yet there are lessons to be learned from past events that forced campuses to close. One of them is clear: Many students will be unable to adapt to the closure.
One of the most durable memories I have of Hurricane Katrina is my realization that many students forced to evacuate could not afford to return. Getting out of harm’s way of a hurricane requires resources like a car, gas, money for food and a place to go. Students pushed out by Katrina needed resources to return to “normalcy.” But when racial wealth gaps are normal, a stumble can become a fall. Many students never recovered from the displacement of 2005. The same will be true of students searching for a safe place to avoid, or avoid spreading, the coronavirus. Like a hurricane, COVID-19 may be “color blind,” but people affected by man-made disasters like underfunded schools, segregated housing, and employment discrimination will be impacted more severely.
The solution is just as clear as the problem: Colleges and universities should not take a color blind, categorical approach to addressing the spread of the virus. Institutions should make room on their campuses for students who need to stay. Some colleges, including the University of Chicago and George Washington University, are doing just that. All colleges should allow some students to stay if they have nowhere else to go.
Campus leaders must remember that the racism and classism that put black and brown and low-income people at risk of dropping out of college also make students vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. The reporting on university closures has focused on hoity-toity four-year institutions that serve more privileged populations. But many public four-year and community colleges are closing, too, and at these institutions, the majority of students have very different backgrounds.
For instance, when students who are housing insecure become homeless, they join a population that is at greater risk of spreading and contracting the virus. And, away from the ivy-covered halls of the elite colleges, large numbers of students have difficulty finding housing. Researchers of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, led by Sara Goldrick-Rab, reported in 2017 that two-thirds of students at American community colleges have difficulty paying for food, about half struggle to find stable housing and about 13 percent are homeless. For some students, colleges offer their most stable sources of food and shelter. When colleges close, students will lose the community connections that often get them a place to stay and a meal to eat.
When my campus closed after Hurricane Katrina, most faculty were still able to get a paycheck and cover their rent or mortgage — thanks to direct deposit. However, many students enrolled in work study, which helps pay tuition and housing costs, did not get paid in the aftermath of the storm, even though they had to finish their coursework, wherever they had ended up. Without a check, they could not meet expenses.
An estimated 100,000 students were displaced by Katrina. The number of students impacted by the closures due to COVID-19 will be exponentially higher this time.
Just as wealth and privilege help protect individuals, institutions that have power and resources will be able to adapt more easily to the use of online and remote programs and will be better able to serve students forced off campus by the virus threat. Because of repeated cuts to the University of New Orleans’ budget over a decade ago, we struggled to serve students properly after Katrina. While colleges have certainly advanced their online offerings since 2005 when I was a professor, under-resourced institutions will still have greater difficulty placing their face-to-face courses online in the middle of a semester.
In general, faculty members who teach in-person classes can’t easily translate their syllabi to online courses. The added value of a campus is that students are more likely to stay engaged because they are members of a community. Faculty who don’t practice in a virtual environment can’t easily replace that sense of community with an online chat room. Consequently, forcing first-generation collegians, low-income students and students of color to leave campus may reduce the spread of the virus, but some of those students may never come back after the threat of the virus is gone.
A campus is more than a place of learning; it offers a real home to many students. Closing a campus to its students is analogous to evicting them from a house or apartment. Campus leaders must update their shutdown plans by making room to house those who really need it.
This story about college campuses closing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.