As the coronavirus pandemic grinds a growing number of industries to a halt, colleges nationwide are moving classes online and limiting in-person services to help stem the outbreak. 

Yet community colleges, which receive less government funding per student than public four-year universities, have had fewer resources to prepare for the outbreak. Given that their students also are more likely to be low income and have children than those attending bachelor’s institutions, two-year schools are tasked with addressing the virus on several fronts.

So far, the U.S. had more than 11,200 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness the virus causes, COVID-19, as of Thursday afternoon, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University, though health experts agree that a lack of test kits means there are far more cases than have been identified. More colleges are expected to close as case numbers rise. 

Equity advocates say the coronavirus could knock community college students off track if it jeopardizes their employment, their ability to make rent or mortgage payments, or their access to food. 

Already, companies have begun laying off workers or reducing their hours as businesses shutter or reduce capacity due to government restrictions or low demand. In a survey last week of 835 U.S. adults, 18% said they or someone in their household had been laid off or had their hours cut due to the coronavirus. 

Community college students are disproportionately susceptible to these issues. One-quarter of students at two-year public schools were in poverty as of 2016, according to Pew Research Center data. And about 60% reported some form of food or housing insecurity in the past year, according to a recent report from the Hope Center. 

“The most important thing for colleges to think carefully about (is) their most vulnerable student populations who are most likely to fall through the cracks,” Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of The Institute for College Access & Success, told Education Dive. Doing so will make colleges “better positioned to come up with policies that support all of their students,” she added. 

Here are three ways community colleges can help their students during the pandemic.

Connect students to resources

Community colllege officials should be mindful that students may struggle to afford housing if they lose their jobs or if their work hours are reduced due to the coronavirus, experts say. 

Although their students don’t typically live on campus, community college shutdowns could cut them off from key services offered in-person, such as help applying for federal housing or food assistance. 

That’s the case for some students in the Seattle area. The United Way of King County operates hubs at several of the region’s community colleges, where students can get assistance with applying for financial aid, signing up for public benefits and navigating emergency housing. 

But the nonprofit decided to close the centers to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Washington state has been one of the hardest-hit regions of the U.S., accounting for nearly half of the nation’s reported deaths from COVID-19. 

The program has since transitioned to a remote model, with coaches assisting students over the phone and online.

“Folks are really struggling, and so part of our jobs now is to make sure (they) know they can reach out even if their college is not open.”

Lauren McGowan

Senior director of ending homelessness and poverty, United Way of King County

 “The hard part is making sure that we’re still reaching students, that they know about these services,” Lauren McGowan, the nonprofit’s senior director of ending homelessness and poverty, told Education Dive. “Folks are really struggling, and so part of our jobs now is to make sure (they) know they can reach out even if their college is not open.”

Lately, McGowan has seen a surge of requests for rent assistance from students and the general public. “So many folks have gone so quickly from just getting by and living paycheck to paycheck … to not having income,” she said. 

The pandemic has also ended some work-study jobs, though the U.S. Department of Education told institutions they could continue paying student workers if they closed their campuses after the semester started.

Some relief may come from the federal government. House Democrats have proposed giving college students $1.2 billion in emergency aid, though some observers say the sum isn’t enough to meet the need. In addition, the Trump administration is backing an idea to send $1,000 checks to most or all Americans. 

Keep food banks running

Food pantries have been promoted as a way to help alleviate the pervasive issue of student hunger on college campuses. Yet campus closures might limit students’ access to this important resource. 

Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, has kept its food bank open amid the outbreak, though it reduced its hours. It is also encouraging students to order online so workers can get their items ready for pickup. 

“We want to get them in and out as quickly as possible,” said Karen Norton, a spokesperson for the college. Bunker Hill also sent messages to some 800 students, faculty and staff who’ve used the food pantry before to let them know they can still access it. 

Like Washington state, Massachusetts has seen a surge of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases in recent days.

The City University of New York (CUNY), which enrolls some 275,000 students across 25 campuses, is keeping some of its food pantries open and allowing students to go to any location, said Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor at CUNY and the director of its Urban Food Policy Institute. 

“Flexibility and communication and an acknowledgment of what everybody is going through collectively are going to be really important.”

Lindsey Reichlin Cruse

Study director, Institute for Women’s Policy Research

“Some students who were not food insecure will become food insecure,” he said.

The system is helping students find their closest community-based food assistance programs. But those organizations might be under stress as they lose volunteers just as more people are requesting their services, Freudenberg said. 

The Hope Center posted guidance for how colleges can continue to support students amid the outbreak. It notes that students who lose part or all of their income may become eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and says colleges should be ready to help students apply for it and other government assistance programs. 

Last week, a federal judge delayed the implementation of new regulations that would have made it harder for states to issue waivers to those who don’t meet the program’s work requirements, which experts predicted would have affected some college students

Right now, colleges “need to help students troubleshoot and connect them with people who will provide solutions,” Paula Umaña, director of community impact at the Hope Center, told Education Dive. 

Be flexible with online education

Amid the crisis, colleges are moving most classes online. Yet only four in five students say they have reliable access to the internet or a computer, according to a survey of more than 10,000 students by Ithaka S+R. 

Some community colleges have kept their libraries open for those students as they moved classes online. But as the crisis escalates, more are beginning to shut down entirelysaid Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R. 

Certain internet service providers are expanding access during the outbreak, including by allowing low-income households to freely use their internet plans for a limited time. 

Still, students likely won’t have equitable access to the internet. 

Observers have also floated the possibility of loaning students internet hot spots and computers, though lesser-resourced institutions, such as community colleges, may not be able to offer as many as students need. 

“It’s a big deal for (community colleges) to get a couple dozen laptops or a couple dozen Wi-Fi hot spots,” Wolff-Eisenberg said. “When I think about that versus the size of the student body, it just doesn’t scale.” 

To accommodate their students, community college instructors should be flexible with assignments and deadlines, several experts told Education Dive. That could include offering multiple options for completing an assignment and loose due dates. 

Community colleges also should structure classes so coursework can be done asynchronously. Assignments that require real-time streaming or other high-bandwidth activities should be avoided altogether so students without high-speed internet aren’t left out. 

Some students may need to scale back their course load or temporarily stop-out during the pandemic. In those cases, community college officials should work with the students to create a plan for them to return, said Dave Jarrat, senior vice president of strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack, in an interview with Education Dive. 

That could help ensure they ultimately complete a credential. The organization’s research has found that non-first-time community college students are more likely to earn an associate degree if they mix part-time and full-time enrollment as they balance responsibilities outside of school. 

Students who are also parents or guardians may especially be feeling the crunch right now as child care centers and schools close across the nation. “It puts even more pressure on parents’ time and ability to focus on their studies,” said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in an interview with Education Dive. 

“Flexibility and communication and an acknowledgment of what everybody is going through collectively are going to be really important,” she said.

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