Credit: Smita Patel / EdSource

Once a student steps out of college, it’s very hard to get them back. That’s a profound problem in higher education, and an even bigger one during a pandemic that has pushed students off campus to take all their courses online.

Andrea Venezia

Right now, colleges don’t know where many of their students are — or if they are safe.

There are students who don’t have a quiet space to study and haven’t been able to complete an assignment since the coronavirus forced colleges to move all classes online. There are students who cannot participate in distance learning because they have no internet access, and because many cannot afford food and housing. As the pandemic deepens societal inequities, people who are keenly aware of both students’ needs and how college campuses work hold the power to help colleges serve their students well — particularly those who are hardest hit by the crisis.

That became clear listening to groups of students, faculty and staff from 10 California State University campuses who participated in an intensive seminar we hosted after all campuses had gone virtual. They are part of a program facilitated by the Education Insights Center, a research and policy center at Sacramento State University, for “middle leaders” — i.e., faculty, staff and administrators who work with students often without a formal leadership position.

Bianca Mothe

Part of the CSU Student Success Network, the Middle Leadership Academy supports these educators in leading in their current roles. Because they are mid-level within the organization of our campuses and connect with students regularly, they are indispensable for ensuring that students can continue to learn and engage with their schools during this crisis.

In a session focused on understanding the effects of the pandemic on students, and particularly historically marginalized students, one participant said, “As educators, we are oriented to solve students’ problems. How do we support students and colleagues through this time with unfixable problems? Especially with the uncertainty of what’s next?”

In order to try to keep campus student bodies as intact as possible, colleges are acting quickly to change a host of policies and ways of doing things, and to ensure that students are treated with compassion. Participants described policies on their campuses that once seemed set in stone — such as pass/no pass options in grading remote coursework, requirements for “wet” (signed in person) signatures, fixed assignment due dates and strict deadlines for dropping a class — are now more flexible.

Terra Thorne

“Maybe the world doesn’t end if students don’t have to take a writing skills test,” one participant said.

Some great ideas that surfaced after intensive discussion and reflection included:

Provide one-stop online information for students. Currently, information is scattered across emails, websites and other formats. A comprehensive “one-stop shop” online portal — and in-person office after campuses re-open — would help more students find resources, such as:

  • Paid administrative leave and new job opportunities for students who previously had on-campus jobs. Perhaps jobless students could be hired to communicate with students via social media about key deadlines and access to help.
  • Unemployment benefits information and forms to help students apply for state benefits.
  • CalFresh information and forms and guidance on navigating the appeals processes for this food benefits program.

Create campus maps of essential services including Wi-Fi hotspots and information about where students can access restrooms as well as food, in order to help students study outdoors on campus.

Provide technology. One campus established an in-house Student Affairs-led tech team as the backbone for tech delivery to students through emergency grants and loaner equipment. That allowed the campus to integrate the dispersal of technology along with other student support services.

Use summer learning differently, with a focus on supporting students who could not complete courses during the final term of the year. Campuses need to act quickly to determine how online summer classes can be used to help students fill in the learning they may have missed this spring. For example, campuses could offer instruction modules so that students would not have to repeat entire courses that they were unable to complete in the spring. Campuses could explore new forms of delivering student affairs assistance online, with a focus on students in crisis.

Help faculty and staff offer more equitable online learning. Participants discussed the need for professional learning opportunities that focus on minimizing patterns of inequity that historically have excluded low-income students and students of color in higher education.

To implement these kinds of changes, we need to listen to those faculty and staff in the middle of our education systems, as well as to students.

Understanding the challenges that students face in this pandemic — and using funds in new ways to support them online and in person — will be critical to ensure that students have equitable opportunities to learn and complete their education.

•••

Andrea Venezia is a Sacramento State University professor and executive director of EdInsights. Bianca Mothé is interim executive director of the California State University (CSU) Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), a California State University, San Marcos, professor and director of the Middle Leadership Academy of the CSU Student Success Network. Terra Thorne is director of statewide initiatives at EdInsights.

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