Student Advocates Say Colleges Must Prioritize Safety and Equity in Planning for Fall 2021

By  - 
Group of students walking and standing in front of a modern glass university building

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, many college students are hoping for a return to normalcy in the coming academic year. Higher education leaders have promised to do what they can to promote such a return but assert that priority must be given to safety and vulnerable student support.  

Lynn C. Pasquerella, PhD, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), says that the greatest concern for campus leaders right now is ensuring that students and employees are safe going into the fall semester. 

“This is at the forefront of their minds, how to open in the fall, whether it should be face-to-face or hybrid or virtual and, of course, whether to mandate the vaccine,” she says. 

The AACU, which has a membership of more than 1,200 higher education institutions, facilitates ongoing conversations around this issue through forums, webinars, institutes, and conferences. Pasquerella says that fear of a possible resurgence in COVID-19 or one of its variants should campuses be too swift in reopening is a topic that comes up every day.

Though a small but growing number of universities have already pledged to require students, and in some cases employees, to be vaccinated by the fall, it is unlikely that public institutions in Republican-controlled states will be able to institute such a mandate, according to Pasquerella. Governors in Florida, Missouri, and other conservative states have already outright banned colleges and businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations or have indicated that they plan to do so in the near future.

Some higher education institutions are considering using disincentives, such as prohibiting the use of campus shuttles or attendance at athletic events, for students who do not get the vaccine, but actually enforcing these rules could be a “logistical nightmare,” Pasquerella says. 

For many low-income and underrepresented students, reopening safely is an issue of equity. The same students who most need access to on-campus resources, such as academic support services or housing, are also the ones who will be disproportionately affected if they have to worry about possibly contracting COVID-19 on campus and inadvertently spreading it to others, even if they themselves are vaccinated. 

“You can’t focus on your studies if you’re worried about where your next meal is going to come from or if you’re living in your car or are worried about anti-Black sentiment at campus orientation and now having to worry about getting infected or infecting loved ones,” Pasquerella explains. “So the plans to have a safe learning environment that might involve mandating a vaccine are directly related to student success and the capacity to learn in an environment where you don’t have to worry if the person next to you might not be vaccinated or is not wearing a mask or has not been social distancing.”

Ensuring that campuses are taking as many precautions as possible may be one way to entice students who dropped out during the pandemic to reenroll. In fall 2020 alone, anywhere from 7.7 million to 10 million students cancelled plans to attend college, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Underrepresented students have been significantly more likely to cancel enrollment or to drop out of degree programs throughout the course of the pandemic. Freshmen from low-income backgrounds have seen some of the greatest drops, and experts are worried that this trend could continue into the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Research has long shown that people who defer plans for higher education rarely return after they enter the workforce, leading experts like Pasquerella to worry that these people could become “a lost generation,” she says. 

Despite the dire outlook, advocates say that the current moment stands as a prime opportunity to reform the culture of higher education toward one that is more focused on supporting vulnerable students and overall student well-being. The AACU and other education groups are pushing for the federal government to ease the path to degree attainment for disadvantaged students by instituting education loan forgiveness and doubling Pell Grant funding as well as expanding internship and work-study opportunities. 

They are also advocating for colleges and lawmakers to recognize mental health support as a necessary component of success. Multiple sources of research show that young people have experienced greater rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation during the pandemic. Furthermore, experts predict that 

many people could experience social anxiety and other negative effects as safety measures are lifted. These factors will compound the mental health crisis that already existed among college students prior to the pandemic. 

One of the most fundamental changes that colleges can make going into the fall semester is promoting the belief that the entire campus community is responsible for student mental health and overall well-being, says David Arnold, assistant vice president for Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives at NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. 

“Student mental health and student safety [are] something that we all play a role in and have some responsibility for,” Arnold says. “One of the growing concerns before COVID and one that will continue during reopening is the isolation in which mental health services are offered and a belief that faculty, for example, can’t provide any sort of intervention, but it’s part of their job to form relationships with students, offer office hours, and make connections.”   

Faculty and staff oftentimes think they are unqualified or that it is not in their purview to get involved with student mental health, but there are plenty of ways to promote student well-being that do not require clinical expertise, Arnold explains. Raising awareness of resources or knowing how to support those who are distressed are simple factors that help to create a community of care, which is especially important for students of color going into the fall 2021 semester. 

“We have a dual pandemic to consider, and it’s not just COVID but also the significant amount of media attention that racial justice issues have played out in the media and in our lives,” says Arnold. “If a university says that it’s concerned with mental health but not concerned about being a racial justice [advocacy] institution, that’s a huge problem because the mental health outcomes for students of color are directly impacted by the way in which the university is trying to [address] racial justice with its students, faculty, staff, and community.”

Pasquerella agrees that colleges must train faculty and staff to recognize psychological distress in students and to understand appropriate interventions. Higher education has proven adaptable to this during the pandemic as many institutions found innovative ways to offer virtual mental health support. Being on campus will provide even more opportunities to promote overall student wellness, she says. 

“In the spring many campuses were canceling their spring breaks, but they recognized the need for students to have a mental break from their stress, so they hosted wellness days with fun activities,” says Pasquerella. “I think we’ll see a lot more of that interspersed through the academic year as colleges recognize that the pandemic has taken a mental toll we didn’t anticipate.”

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.