Covid-19 College Shutdowns: Making Professors More Empathetic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an equalizer among parents of school-aged children across the United States. As Americans learn to juggle jobs, families, and their children’s education, this experience is revealing what “normal” looks like for many college students who have done the same long before the pandemic hit.

In 2015, for example, my brother earned a master’s degree in criminal justice. He excelled in his education as a single parent while also working full-time as a sheriff’s deputy. Watching him attend parent-teacher conferences, coordinate childcare, provide transportation, and organize a household showed me what my own students deal with regularly.

Still, I did not fully recognize that struggle until COVID-19 forced me to homeschool my children while teaching online.

I teach writing at Portland Community College in Oregon, where the average age of students earning a degree is 28 and the average age of students taking non-credit classes is 40. Seventy percent of students at two-year colleges work while studying.

Most of my students also have children and maintain full-time jobs while taking classes.

Once the pandemic hit, every PCC campus closed and classes went online. Instructors who had never taught an online class had to convert face-to-face courses into distance learning courses within weeks.

The administration linked faculty who have taught online classes with their less-experienced counterparts. Teachers also shared course templates with their colleagues.

If converting classes under intense pressure proved stressful for teachers, that stress was multiplied for students, many of whom hadn’t taken an online class and faced major life changes.

For example, during the first week of spring term, a student alerted me that she and her 5-month-old daughter had slept in the airport for two nights and had gone from shelter to shelter after escaping an abusive relationship. They have moved nine times this term. Clearly, her first concern was not academics; still, I was happy to connect her with people at the college who could assist her with housing, food, and other basic needs.

Sadly, hers isn’t an isolated case. A survey found that “Sixty percent of survey respondents at two-year institutions and 48 percent at four-year institutions experience housing insecurity.” And 48 percent of students at two-year colleges experienced food insecurity. Without their basic needs met, students can’t be expected to do well in school and complete degrees.

At the beginning of the COVID crisis, PCC administration alerted students about resources such as college food banks, clothing closets, emergency bus tickets, daycare, and insurance available to them. In the future, colleges could better educate faculty about organizations like The Hope Center and their own college resources, which can improve student retention.

Economic insecurity isn’t the only problem facing many students. Another consequence of the pandemic is the increased number of Americans suffering from depression and anxiety. Mental health issues among college students have nearly doubled over the past five to ten years, and of depression, anxiety, and PTSD have increased considerably since the pandemic.

A student whose mother had been hospitalized for leukemia, for example, experienced an understandably high amount of stress when the lockdown began. A bright student, he had turned in quality work on time, but started to miss deadlines during the lockdown. He began battling depression and sought treatment because hospital rules stopped him from visiting his mother. He admitted he was having trouble handling the anxiety of a parent battling cancer, a pandemic, and passing my class.

Before COVID-19, I might have thought twice before believing him. After 14 years of teaching, I have heard my share of sad stories by procrastinating students who lie to avoid a failing grade.

However, this pandemic has brought about trauma and emotional lows for many people. Experiencing the same stressors as my students has increased my levels of understanding and patience as a teacher.

To be a better teacher, being approachable at the beginning of the term is essential. Communicating my willingness to work with students is vital when tragedy occurs and pressure mounts. Previously, I failed to follow up with students who were struggling academically, but now I am learning to check on students to ensure they are okay. I am also learning to sometimes offer flexibility on deadlines when I can tell a student is struggling.

The long-term benefits of learning how to communicate outweigh the risks of lazy students taking advantage of time extensions.

Some would argue that extending deadlines only promotes procrastination and sets students up for failure in the real world. College, after all, offers a valuable opportunity to prepare students for the pressures of their careers. But as previously indicated, the life of a working student at a two-year college is often far more hectic and riddled with basic needs than that of the average American working a nine-to-five job. Students are older and many already have basic work skills—shown by them already working a job.

Some would also argue these “extra” services done by adjuncts like myself are not a professor’s responsibilities and that adjunct faculty are over-worked and underpaid. Adjuncts work for significantly lower pay than tenured professors, and adjuncts at community colleges over-extend themselves, often working more than one job to make ends meet.

Should this extra time dedicated to helping my student find housing for her and her baby fall under the “service” aspect of a professor’s responsibilities? And should my evening and weekend calls with struggling students be compensated by the college?

The administration rarely hears about the extra work instructors put in to help students. Those “extras” fall under the realm of office hours. Though the college benefits from that work, they only pay adjuncts like me to teach. If college leaders are committed to helping students succeed, they may need to acknowledge this support role that adjuncts and professors are already playing.

A continuous push-pull occurs between the union and administration at my college over teachers’ salaries and responsibilities. I appreciate the union’s work to fight for adjuncts’ fair wages and for health care benefits. Ultimately, though, my decision to spend the extra time and energy during this pandemic isn’t prompted by the expectation of additional money or benefits, but from the realization that my students are struggling under the same pressures as I am. Supporting those students during these rough times is simply the right thing to do.

Good writing takes time. During a pandemic, that time may be unavailable. When students have work and childcare duties as well, that time may be unavailable in more normal times. Because writing is a process that requires planning, drafting, and revising, I would rather err by offering students too much time to improve their craft than require them to rush through assignments and submit shoddy work. The long-term benefits of learning how to communicate outweigh the risks of lazy students taking advantage of time extensions.

Teaching through COVID-19 has opened my eyes to the many obstacles my students face beyond academics. After the pandemic ends, I look forward to sending my children back to school and life returning to normal. However, a more nuanced perspective on my students’ lives will stay with me.

Kathleen Bustamante is an adjunct writing instructor at Portland Community College.