‘It’s As If They Just Disappeared.’ The Challenge of Engaging Financially-Stressed Students During a Pandemic
I am a proud educator of the California Community College District. While many turn their noses up to the community college system, I have always believed community colleges are where many of our society’s most resilient and hard-working students begin their higher education paths. After witnessing the many hurdles they confronted all while facing a global pandemic, that belief has been confirmed for me.
But I lost many of my community college students to the COVID-19 pandemic. While I did not lose students to the virus itself, I blame the virus for lost opportunities to engage with the handful of students who withdrew from my class the day it was announced classes would move to remote instruction. My emails, phone calls and text messages to them went unanswered. It was as if they had just disappeared.
I lost valuable teaching time while other students struggled to connect with me online. Several lacked reliable internet service at home which proved to be a tremendous challenge for my home-bound students. Campus-wide messaging went out to inform students they could access the college’s internet from our campus parking lots, however many of my students were unable to sit in a car for multiple hours a day to attend online classes and complete assignments. While the intention to offer students access to the school’s internet was good, it seemed unreasonable to expect students to do that.
"It was like I was watching the walls in their homes begin to close in on them with each weekly Zoom meeting."
No longer having to attend classes in person seemingly “freed-up” students’ schedules—as if not having to go to a classroom meant education would take less time. Many students jumped at the opportunity to work more hours at their jobs in order to attempt to replenish the lost wages of family members who were unable to work. Students were persuaded by the opportunity to work a surplus of hours and earn almost 40 hours a week from several employers, including Pizza Hut and Coffee Bean and Home Depot. I competed with these jobs for my students’ attention.
While I ardently believed my assignment on the sociological analysis of our current healthcare system would be timely and valuable to students’ understanding of the sociological impact of COVID-19, at that moment, it seemed irrelevant to the student trying to juggle studies and their hourly work. “I didn’t realize I would be deemed an ‘essential worker’ working at The Home Depot” one student revealed as he tried to explain why he had fallen behind on several assignments.
If students weren’t filling their new schedules with work that put them at higher risks to contract the virus, they were managing household chores and babysitting duties for their family members on the front lines. I lost students throughout the semester as they became more disengaged with each passing week due to the heaviness of a pandemic and all the hardships it had placed on them and their families. It was like I was watching the walls in their homes begin to close in on them with each weekly Zoom meeting. Through my regular check-ins with students, I learned that while some students were overworked by the need to provide for their families, others at home seemed to be drowning in a sea of hopelessness over the heaviness of their circumstances.
Social stratification within our economic system was the unofficial and all-encompassing sociological lesson for my students this semester. I named it for them, but they lived it. Many went from a full-time status college student to a student balancing their full-time student load online with an almost full-time job. “I’m really lucky,” one student shared when I finally got a hold of her by phone after she had gone missing for a few weeks. “I just got hired at Vons, and I work everyday except Mondays and Tuesdays,” she said enthusiastically.
“Are you able to get classwork done on your days off?” I asked hesitantly. I knew the answer, and part of me wasn’t prepared for her to confirm it.
“Yeah, that’s my plan,” she responded somewhat confidently. I quickly realized I was talking to her on her day off and noticed the sounds of kids happily playing in the background. “Do you have kids at home?”
“Oh yeah, sorry. Those are my nieces and nephews. I babysit while my sisters are at work.” It was at that moment my suspicions were confirmed. While she had every intention of completing her classwork, the reality is that there were not enough hours in the day. I ended up working with the student the week before finals to catch her up on the assignments she had missed. She passed the class, but just barely.
It was at that moment that I began to comprehend this was bigger than my pedagogical practices. The economic conditions exacerbated by COVID-19 were making it that much harder for me to be an effective teacher.
I believe we are at a crossroads in the community college system. Our students’ lives are being disproportionately impacted by an array of social issues that have all been magnified by this pandemic. The economic forces that are increasingly tugging at students to maintain a low-wage worker status make it extremely difficult to persist as a college student.
The role of community colleges in our society is vital if we want to create opportunities for upward mobility and come out of this pandemic better equipped to take on the threat of a future pandemic. As the cost of higher education has steadily increased in this country, we have made important efforts to remove the economic barriers that limit access to community colleges. But what good are those efforts if our economic conditions prevent students from successfully completing their college classes?
I am unsure what will become of our economic system once we prevail over this pandemic, but my hope is that I can give a voice to the experience of the many community college students I have encountered over the years who are fighting for a chance to partake in the American Dream, and I will continue to work to increase those chances for them.