Lucas Center Blog

Vulnerability and the Unequal Distribution of Coronavirus Burdens

April 07, 2020  / Bill Reynolds, PhD  / Tags: equity, coronavirus, higher ed, covid, inequity, vulnerable

Which students in your classes are most vulnerable to the rippling impacts of the coronavirus? While many students have safe, secure environments in which to isolate themselves from the virus, many others have, of necessity, returned to living situations and off-campus jobs that amplify their vulnerability. A recent New York Times article documents the rise in domestic abuse since greater numbers of people have been in some kind of lockdown situation. Depending on the country, abuse reports appear to have risen between 20 and 30 percent within one to two weeks of quarantine measures beginning. Several news sources have been reporting this story, and survivors of domestic abuse suggest resources for those who are affected.

The coronavirus also exposes societal inequities among college students, who may have been forced to leave a relatively even playing field and return to widely varying circumstances. As one college professor noted: “It’s as though you had a front-row view on American inequality and the ways in which it was disguised and papered over” (Anita Isaacs, Haverford College professor quoted in the New York Times). In an op ed piece published a week ago (“Surviving Coronavirus as a Broke College Student”) a University of Georgia student wrote:

For college students like me, the current solutions are: File for unemployment! Find a job at Kroger or Aldi at the detriment of your physical health! Call your potentially toxic parents! Tax refund! Personal loan! Sell your belongings!

These options are not good enough. College was supposed to give us hope for our financial future, not place us back in our parents’ houses without jobs.

She concludes by advocating for mortgage and rent payments to be suspended so that people are not driven further into debt and don’t suffer housing insecurity during this crisis. (At least one NYC landlord would agree with her, saying “My concern is everyone’s health.”)

Finally, resource inequities can also make it difficult for students to successfully navigate the transition to emergency remote instruction, and reports of students not joining online instruction seem to bear this out.

The students who are struggling the most right now very likely suffer from challenges related to the rippling social, psychological, and economic effects of this pandemic. How will they be impacted if they fail our courses or if they drop or withdraw from one or more classes and don’t receive credit? What are the economic (and other) effects of such decisions? While we, as faculty and community members, may not have the capacity to respond to the structural factors that disproportionately impact our vulnerable students, we can ease their burdens as they relate to our individual classes. We can show care, we can relax deadlines, we can ask what this experience has been like for our students and their families, we can offer alternative assignments. Small acts of compassion can be tremendously meaningful in these unprecedented times