Pull No Punches

Faith SandlerAdvocacy and Policy, COVID-19, Education, Words of Faith

Journalist Sylvester Brown, Jr. received the essay written by Scholarship Foundation Campus Policy Fellows and wanted to meet with them right away. Brown began the discussion with Anne Marie, Jessika, Kennedi, and Sabreyna by noting that in their writing they “pulled no punches.” At that point, I turned off my camera and my microphone as the five others launched an hour-long discussion of how COVID-19 made clear all the ways that colleges failed to act on behalf of their highest priority: students.

Brown’s piece on the critique offered by the campus policy fellows was published in this week’s edition of the St. Louis American (To read Brown’s piece, see page A12 of the St. Louis American June 17 E-edition and scroll down). He is tasked with covering the impacts of COVID on the region’s Black community, through a grant from Deaconess Foundation. Deaconess Foundation is a founding partner with The Scholarship Foundation in the policy fellowship program that this year supported 11 policy fellows through data analysis, study of state and federal policies affecting low-income students, and campus policies and practices of significance.

This is the essay prepared by the four campus policy fellows to explain the realities of their last three semesters of college.

– Faith Sandler

The Realities of COVID-College

As four college students that have spent the last academic year in quarantine, we share a common story of first-hand experience with the successes and failures of institutions regarding COVID. While each of us attends different 4-year institutions, we are advocating to make college more affordable and accessible to all Missouri students. COVID-College has complicated the work we need to do and made us all the more determined to do it.

Upheaval and Trauma

It has been three semesters since many college students have been unable to return to campus. Many students left behind personal belongings at their on-campus dorms and apartments, and some never returned due to impacts of COVID. The pandemic has been both emotionally and financially devastating for college students. Losing income from being unable to work on-campus jobs along with the inability to receive stimulus checks has left students like us unable to meet their most basic needs.

Maintaining relationships on and off-campus has been difficult at best, impossible at worst. There has not been enough preparation, support, or investment in infrastructure for professors and faculty to provide meaningful education to their students. Instructors, professors, aides, and staff who are not tech-savvy have struggled to meet the demands of the new online learning experience. We have encountered professors who treated students as if the world had not changed at all, piling on assignments and enforcing strict attendance, grading, and other policies for their online classes. There has been limited consideration for students joining class from different time zones, some with almost half-day differences.

Inconsistent and Inadequate Financial Support

In the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund there was some relief for students, but colleges differed in how they dispersed the funds. Two different aid packages for students were passed, each allocating different amounts depending on institution and level of financial hardship. Totals varied from as little as $450 in Spring 2020 to $1,150 this semester. Limited COVID crisis financial assistance from institutions and no information on where to get assistance has left college students with two options: sink or swim.

Persistent Health and Safety Risks

Many universities have had poor COVID contact tracing and no way to provide COVID testing at all, let alone free or low-cost testing. Safety measures to keep minority students who are at a higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID are not a priority and neither are the mental health services to alleviate the effects of the pandemic and widespread racism persisting in the United States. The experience of returning to campus has varied widely. At several institutions, masking and social distancing requirements persist. Amongst a growing number of schools COVID vaccinations are required to be admitted back on campus. Some institutions are not implementing mandated social distancing, mask-wearing, or vaccination.

At the University of Central Missouri, double occupancy rooms are already scheduled to be reinstituted for the Fall 2021 semester without consistent COVID-19 testing for students and no proof that COVID cases are under control. Those who do not have health insurance, including low-income and first-generation college students, face a greater risk of not getting proper care with the detrimental effects of COVID. Institutions like Hampton University have implemented new policies that have been more lenient on their students. Professors cannot penalize students for being absent from a class and are mandated to record and upload their lectures. This allows students in different time zones to access lectures at their convenience. While accommodations have been helpful, there is still a long way to go for interactive and safe learning.

Greater Civic Engagement and Agency

 Ironically, poor management of this public health crisis resulted in a greater degree of involvement of college students in public affairs. It has become clear that universities are not putting students first and students have limited ways to express dissatisfaction. We have witnessed failures in each of our institutions in their treatment of students in the midst of handling the pandemic. The policies and provisions announced to us have been reactive and rarely, if ever, proactive thinking about what we might need to be successful. Institutions need to form better dialogue so students’ grievances are heard and solutions are implemented. Policies and resources should be readily and easily available to students. Students should be informed frequently about updates to policies affecting their academic experiences. Students hold the power to foster advancement on campus, so speaking up regarding grievances is essential. COVID has affected the lives of students drastically the past three semesters, and institutions need to better address new conditions to help students succeed.

Jessika Cole (University of Missouri-St. Louis, Class of 2021), Anne Marie Crane (Truman State University, Class of 2021), Kennedi Harmon (Hampton University, Class of 2021), and Sabreyna Reese (University of Central Missouri, Class of 2021) are Missouri college students, serving as Campus Policy fellows with The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, and members of The League of Student Advocates.