The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting campuses nationwide. Over the extended spring break, instructors and support services will develop new systems to move classes online. Many students are wondering how this transition will affect their ability to put food on the table and pay bills. Here are a few of the ways that institutions are stepping up to meet students’ basic needs in this moment of uncertainty:
Housing and Food Access
Many campuses are closing the dorms and urging students to go home. While moves like this are essential to achieve social distancing, some students are unable to return home. This includes international students, students experiencing housing or food insecurity, low-income students, and students who have strained relationships with their guardians. Like in the K-12 school systems, some students rely on their college to provide food access. We urge residential life to maintain some housing options for these students, including access to a kitchen or dining hall take out, if open.
We expect that many institutions will be online-only through the end of the term. If that’s the case, students should be reimbursed for their unused meal plans and on-campus housing. Temple University will begin reimbursing students for housing starting on March 21st, their move-out deadline, and will likely announce the same for meal plans soon.
For students living close to campus who are food insecure, additional assistance may be needed to keep food on the table. Students who rely on part-time jobs to pay for basic needs may be unable to work if their place of employment shuts down or has restricted hours. Campuses should work to maintain or even expand support services to help food insecure students. At Rutgers University, the student government allocated $10,000 in supplemental funds to stock the campus food pantry, which is maintaining its normal operating hours. UC Riverside is offering gift cards to local grocery stores in addition to their usual R’Pantry service.
Work Study Wages
While instruction moves online, not all campus activities and offices will be able to do so. Students with financial aid packages that include work-study benefits have been counting on that income to pay bills. Departments that frequently employ work-study students, such as gyms, dining halls, libraries, custodial and groundskeeping services, campus transit, and reception desks, will all likely be closed during the COVID-19 response. The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance stating that work-study students could continue to be paid during campus closures. Institutions should transition work-study and other student employees over to remote work where possible, and ensure that all student employees are paid for the hours they were scheduled for.
As they move off campus with limited time and resources, students may need access to emergency storage. Some companies like UHaul have offered free one-month storage on a first come, first served basis. Institutions should provide some form of free storage, either by letting students keep some belongings in their dorm rooms or other locations on campus. Harvard is providing up to $200 in storage credits or in shipping costs to send belongings home.
Computer and Internet Access
While today’s generation of college students widely own smartphones or laptops, getting online can still be a challenge. Phones may have limited data plans, computers might be slow and aging, or home wifi might be too weak or inconsistent to share with family members. To help students and workers who are now working from home, Comcast announced nationwide free wifi access. Many institutions are loosening the rules around on-campus laptop rentals to allow students to take them home for extended periods. Last year, UC Riverside launched a self-serve laptop rental kiosk that will remain open despite the library’s closure.
Course Materials Access
While instructors move class online, publishers and ed tech companies have offered temporary free access codes for students to submit homework. Before assigning commercial products that ignore student data privacy, faculty should consider free open educational resources that are more adaptable to their teaching style and situation. The University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library and Rice University’s OpenStax are two great sources for high quality open materials. Faculty should also consider assigning materials the library already owns, or sharing chapters or select pages from copyrighted books. Stony Brook University has a good guide to fair use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes.
Moving off campus at short notice, traveling home, and paying bills – with little to no income – will certainly cause strain on already limited student budgets. Some studies suggest that 10 percent of students drop out of college for unexpected costs of less than a thousand dollars. To fill that gap, some institutions offer emergency grants; the United Negro College Fund offers a variety of housing, food, and retention grants to their member institutions. These kinds of grants will be even more needed if the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
These are just a handful of ways that colleges and universities can support students. But, these programs require investment of time and financial resources to serve at-risk students. We urge campus leaders to implement these programs, and Congress to provide funding to keep them open for the duration of the pandemic.
Kaitlyn Vitez is the PIRG Higher Education Campaign Director