Pandemic compounds inequities

High school students learn what local community colleges offer during an Oakland Town Hall and College Fair in January. (Photo: California Community Colleges)

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating inequities for many African-American students in California, according to community college leaders.

Compton College has always targeted assistance to African-American students and others in need, but the pandemic has “made it more clear about their lack of basic needs,” said President Keith Curry. “COVID is adding another layer of impact.”

College leaders need to connect with students to learn the best ways to help them, he said. For example, when Compton offered technology and free meals on campus, many students were wary of going outside and didn’t have the means to pick them up, Curry said.

As a result, Compton mailed laptops and mobile hot spots to students’ homes and partnered with Everytable to deliver healthy meals to them.

Compton is using $1.6 million of its $2.5 million in federal CARES Act funds for grants to help students with housing, food and other emergency needs.

Curry and Ed Bush, president of Consumnes River College, had long planned a roundtable on equity issues featuring California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, state legislators, community college leaders, African-American organization leaders and students.

When the pandemic hit, that event pivoted to a virtual town hall on April 22, and many of the speakers addressed the need for race-conscious policies to promote student success, along with the impact of COVID on African-American students.

Compton also partnered with Pam Luster, president of San Diego Mesa College, on Twitter conversations with colleagues, industry leaders and foundations around equity under the hashtag #EquityAvengers.

Reaching out

“The pandemic didn’t create inequities. It exacerbated inequities already there,” Bush said.

When Consumnes River College (CRC) transitioned to distance learning, it also decided to step up equity efforts, he said. CRC hosted professional development training on equity and directed faculty to develop “equity-minded syllabi” to mitigate a disproportionate impact on African-American students.

CRC had previously adopted a caseload approach to counseling and student success as part of its guided pathways structure, so those support teams called every student to find out what they needed.

Even so, a disproportionate number of African-American and Latinx students withdrew from courses since March 1 due to myriad reasons, ranging from a lack of technology to unemployment, Bush said.

One issue they found is that when parents lost their jobs, students had to work and often were hired as essential workers at places like Walmart, which also made attending college more difficult.

Even though CRC provided laptops and mobile wifi hotspots to students, they still had problems connecting to their classes, Bush said. CRC staff found there were household issues, with multiple people – including teleworking parents and younger siblings needing access to the internet – and there wasn’t enough quiet space for studying.

“We didn’t anticipate that family members would move in together, adding to overcrowded households,” said Teresa Aldredge, a counselor and faculty member at CRC and president of the Umoja Community Education Foundation, a statewide organization that focuses on helping African-American community college students succeed.

Students also are struggling with time management at home, Aldredge said. Many have trouble juggling classes, schoolwork and jobs when “they’re no longer around individuals who motivate them,” she said.

Counselors are doing what they can to offer that helpful nudge.

“We’re calling them once a week to get them to focus on one thing at a time,” Aldredge said.

Extra support

CRC already had many initiatives to help students struggling with food and housing insecurity and the digital divide, such as two-week hotel vouchers and emergency cash assistance, Aldredge noted. But when the pandemic hit, the number of students applying for emergency aid tripled.

It’s also been difficult when African-American students lose extracurricular support groups, like Umoja, which provides a culturally relevant learning community with students participating in the same classes and extracurricular activities together.

To make up for that, Umoja is connecting with students through “weekly virtual village time,” with such activities as self-care workshops and drawing lessons, Aldredge said.

There have also been biweekly check-ins from CRC’s chapter of African American Male Education Network and Development (A2MEND), a program aimed at fostering success of black male community college students in California.

Budget cuts loom

Bush hopes CRC will focus on equity and opportunity for African-American and Latinx students in allocating CARES Act dollars, but the college hasn’t decided yet how to spend those funds.

Meanwhile, CRC is expecting budget reductions due to the pandemic’s effects on state finances. CRC may have to cut staff, while enrollment demand is likely to increase, and “that will put additional strain on our system,” Bush said.

Discussions within CRC and the Los Rios Community College District, of which it is a part, center around an “equity-minded framework for budget allocations and reductions,” Bush said.

“We are operationalizing this so we do not further harm to students already harmed. This has to be factored in upfront,” he said.

Bush would like to see a more equitable funding system for higher education in California so community colleges are no longer short-changed. He also wants to remove obstacles that make it difficult for students to get financial aid.

“While a lot of folks are focusing on what students are lacking, our approach is not to view students from a deficit frame,” Bush said. “They come with a tremendous amount of assets. It’s the college that needs to be fixed, not the students.”

Commitment to equity

The California Community College system (CCC) remains committed to equity, even in the face of looming budget constraints, said Aisha Lowe, vice chancellor of educational services and support, and a faculty member at American River College, also in the Los Rios district.

CCC is partnering with the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California to host a series of webinars on equity in online teaching and learning, anti-racism practices and related topics.

Lowe has heard from students about how the pandemic is creating hardships for those already on precarious footing.

Students who lack technology at home can no longer come to campus to use the computer lab, she said, and the loss of jobs “creates a ripple effect around personal finances and housing.”

There’s also a psychological and emotional piece. For many African-American students, the “campus community becomes a family for them,” Lowe said. “When that is removed, they feel further disconnected in a world where they already feel disenfranchised.”

Lowe hopes the pandemic won’t lead to long-term implications for equity.

“We’re definitely going to keep an eye on this,” she added.

Noting that economic downturns generally result in enrollment increases, California colleges will use guided pathways and competency-based education to stay nimble as they face an influx of new students, Lowe said.

Loss of community

Black students at Diablo Valley College (DVC) are also disproportionately affected by the pandemic, according to Eric Handy, a counselor and professor who’s in charge of the college’s Umoja learning community and serves on the board of A2MEND.

When the pandemic hit, “African-American students didn’t have what they need,” Handy said, adding that students who lack technology resources and face housing and food insecurities “are dropping out at alarming rates.”

About 5 percent of students overall – and about 7 percent of African-American students – have withdrawn from DVC since the COVID outbreak, Handy said. Enrollment in the college’s Umoja learning community declined from 36 to 24 students.

“Students of color need community, they need support. When they’re at home, they’re not getting that community or that support,” Handy said.

In addition to delivering technology and meals to students, DVC implemented more flexible policies. The grace period for withdrawals was extended by several weeks, and students can now choose a passing grade rather than a letter grade up to two weeks before the end of the term.

Listen to students

One thing Handy learned from the virtual town hall hosted by Curry is that students are active on social media.

“We need to tease that out into more in-depth conversations online,” he said.

The week after that event was designated “student success week.” Curry directed Handy and Abdul Buul, a counselor at San Diego City College, to invite students to dialogue and share videos on Twitter and Instagram Live. They are also developing a monthly podcast series on equity issues.

Handy plans to follow up with the chancellor’s office to push for more direct funding to community colleges to help students with basic emergency needs and more attention to equity in student services.

“We want to make sure each institution is looking at how we’re serving students, why the equity gap exists and how to fix it,” Handy said. “We need a shift in the landscape in how colleges do business.”

Handy believes student services departments need more resources and should implement early alert systems, and that colleges should have more counselors and faculty of color, and staff should have more training on how to work with students of color.

However, DVS is facing a 20 percent workload reduction due to the pandemic, which is likely to disproportionately affect student services, including mental health counseling and academic support.

“People don’t drown because they fell in the water. They drown because they stay submerged in the water,” Handy said.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.