Guest Post: Student and Covid narrative is wrong

The narrative about students and Covid is wrong

By Christine Wolff-Eisenberg ([email protected])

Like many who have a vested interest in the success of today’s learners and teachers, I often find myself encountering arguments as to why we need to bring students back to campus for face-to-face learning. In recent months, many have been spurred on by colleges and universities changing the start of the spring semester in response to the Omicron variant. These perspectives range from the news media to social networksof those work in colleges and universities to those entirely removed from the sector. And yet they tend to have one basic premise in common: college students are uniformly young and healthy, isolated from at-risk communities, and demand in-person learning.

This premise is deeply flawed.

When we fail to unpack commonly referenced myths about today’s students and base our judgments and comments on faulty data, we are telling students that their experiences and perspectives that conflict with this narrative don’t really matter. We point out to those who don’t fit the “typical” narrative of college students that they really don’t belong there.

While it may be tempting to think of the pandemic in the past, its impacts are still very much present and there are lessons to be learned from what it has revealed about longstanding barriers and inequalities in higher education. . With the college enrollment rates are already trending down and dropout rates are increasingwe simply cannot afford to spend more time on these lies that perpetuate social, emotional and economic damage.

Today’s students are not uniformly young, able-bodied and financially secure
Let’s start with student finances. Almost three out of five students experiencing insecurity of basic needs. This means that they do not have access to sufficient food, stable housing or, in some cases, both.

When we think about where, how and even if students can self-isolate during the pandemic, for example after contracting or being exposed to the virus, we must consider that not everyone has access to these most basic resources. I will never forget the student I interviewed before the pandemic who could not afford to have his laptop battery repaired and so relied exclusively on his phone for his lessons. His story is unfortunately not uncommon.

Then there is age to consider. Within the community college sector, which represents more than a third of undergraduate enrollment in higher educationthe students are on average 28 years old. Almost one in ten is over 40. The numbers are not far off for four-year colleges and universities either. These statistics have huge implications for assessing risks related to COVID transmission and health outcomes.

And speaking of health, about one in five people have an existing disability. In addition to those who are not currently able-bodied, institutions are dealing with the growing share of their students who will be impacted by short- or long-term COVID symptoms.

Today’s students have complex lives outside the classroom
In my organization, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, we have an important mantra that guides our work: students are human first. We recognize that college students have complex lives outside of the classroom that impact their decisions and success within it.

Many students work. An overwhelming majority of those who attend university part-time – eight out of ten – are employed. Even those who attend college full time are employed at high rates. When teaching arrangements change or are not flexible enough, many students find it difficult to adapt their working hours – and given what we know about their financial situation, many have to make difficult decisions to continue their studies. in these moments.

More than a quarter of all undergraduates are parents, too, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of those with other kinds of caregiving responsibilities. There are many students like the one I spoke with several years ago – part-time student, full-time worker, parent of a young child and spouse of a partner balancing the same roles themselves – whose formal learning opportunities are completely shaped by other circumstances.

Clearly, for many students, their identity as a student is just one of many identities competing for their time and guiding risk mitigation decisions.

Today’s students want to connect with their peers, but that may not translate into demand for face-to-face learning
Alarming statistics have been presented in recent years that large proportions of students are unlikely to re-enroll if remote learning continues. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that many students experience high levels of loneliness, anxietyand disconnection from peers. We need to take these issues seriously, but we also need to work to understand what drives them.

There are important distinctions between wanting to engage socially with peers, wanting to live on campus, and wanting to experience in-person learning. Given what we know about student demographics and experiences, it should come as no surprise that many students want at least some digital course offerings moving forward. At the City University of New York, our nation’s largest urban public university, more than 25,000 signatures have recently accumulated on a petition for more virtual options. Hundreds of students at Vanderbilt University asked the same.

There are not yet good statistics available on students choosing certain modalities over others when options are presented, but I would not be very surprised if the virtual and hybrid course sections fill up faster than those in person. Just as many working adults have sought more flexibility and autonomy in their work arrangements since the start of the pandemic, many students are seeking to maximize options that accommodate their complex lives and responsibilities outside of the classroom.

Post-secondary education can provide better jobs, higher wages, and a strong sense of self-worth. When we talk about who should have these opportunities, we need to include those who don’t fit the “typical” college student narrative. In fact, we should feel the urgency to center these students, as many have already been most educationally and personally impacted by the pandemic.

When institutions meet the needs of their students, they are more likely to succeed in enrolling, progressing and graduating. Students, their institutions and local economies all benefit from these efforts.

So while we cannot fully anticipate the specific challenges the ongoing pandemic will continue to bring to colleges and universities, we can recognize where current popular narratives about today’s college students fall short. And there is plenty of evidence that shows us exactly where these accounts fall short.

Christine Wolff-Eisenberg (@cwolffeisenberg) is a Senior Learning Specialist at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justicean action research center at Temple University.

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