On March 12, Daniel Dyal, a 20-year-old student at West Virginia Wesleyan College, received an email confirming the school’s prior warning. They’d be shutting down the campus in an attempt to keep COVID-19 from spreading, and students would be allowed to stay on campus only if absolutely necessary, pending submission of a form.
While all students without reason for staying were supposed to be out of their dorms by March 15—giving them less than a week to pack and coordinate moves—Dyal was moving his own belongings into the consolidated house where remaining students would live when he got another email: “They changed their mind about housing due to growing concern surrounding COVID-19, and had to reevaluate each person’s reason for staying on campus,” Dyal told the Daily Yonder.
“Many of my peers are without their campus job and face troubles due to spotty wifi, lack of mobility, weak mental health that make online classes difficult, or troubling home lives,” he continued. “This time is rough for everyone, but I worry the most about those who suffer from not being on campus.”
Over the last month, colleges across America shuttered their campuses, moving students out of dorms and switching classes to remote or online learning as a result of coronavirus. Students face canceled graduation ceremonies, concerns over losing work-study funding and financial aid, and the general sense of unease that stems from something long taken as a given—that class schedules and assignments will churn no matter what—suddenly changing shape.
Looking for Workarounds
For students attending schools in rural communities, the challenges compound: American adults in rural areas are less likely to have home broadband or own a smartphone, creating hurdles for online learning. A survey of roughly 750 U.S. college students found one-fifth had challenges consistently accessing technology. Some students have found themselves without access to elements of the college experience that have been a staple of their lives, like steady employment or access to mental health services. Amid unprecedented change, rural students and professors are considering what COVID-19 means for their communities.
“As a mentally ill person, my life revolves around the need for stability,” said Dyal, who mentioned he’s missing access to free campus counseling — though, he notes, the head of the Counseling Center has been making an effort to reach out to him and others to ensure they’re OK. “As a person from a lower socio-economic area, my life revolves around making sure I have enough income to go to college and support myself. COVID-19 has thrown everything I have known off balance,” he said. He’s been able to keep his off-campus job, his campus job working as a virtual tutor for the writing center, and housing, due to the lack of access to internet and transportation he faces at home. But he worries about individuals he knows who live paycheck to paycheck, leaving them unable to budget for COVID-related trips to the hospital.
“I love being at a smaller, private college as well because the teachers are so supportive of their students,” Dyal adds. “Being at a college in a rural town, professors get to have a deeper connection with their students and several have reached out to me to make sure I am doing OK during this time.”
Michaela Cochran, 24, a student at Murray State University in Western Kentucky, has switched entirely to online classes for the remainder of the semester. For Cochran, it has meant lack of access to workspaces, printers, and public computers. “I am concerned about work more than classes,” said Cochran, who said her professors have done well at switching their content to an online format. She worked for the dining service on-campus, which she explained was one of the best-paying jobs for students in the area. “I was used to working anywhere from 20 to 35 hours a week, so the loss of income is going to be hard,” she added. She is hesitant to work in local grocery stores hiring workers because of multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases in her county. “Still, I cannot rely on my savings account forever if next semester’s classes are remote too.”
Most of Cochran’s family lives in Tennessee, and both her parents and youngest sibling are still working, despite her father being at-risk because of his age and health problems. While her biggest stressor is concern for her family, as a business student, Cochran said she is “so demotivated” learning about systems that are failing to help people during this crisis. “Why should I care about how to market a product or managerial finance when I am concerned about my loved ones falling into financial disparity or falling ill?”
Preparing for the New Normal
Dr. Andrew Koricich, an associate professor and program director for the Higher Education Program in the Reich College of Education at Appalachian State University, and a research fellow with the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, has already begun thinking about what the future holds for students if they don’t physically return to campuses until the fall of 2021.
“I just tend to say we’re not going to panic, but I think we have to start thinking about how this is probably not isolated to the rest of this academic year,” said Koricich. He questions what happens when this is all over, whenever that is.
“My worry is that students … where it may have been hard to draw them to campus in the first place, it may be impossible to draw them back,” Koricich said.
Especially for students who are the first in their families to attend college—something that might have been a significant familial leap—he’s concerned that momentum doesn’t come around a second time after such significant disruption.
“Your family may not be working, your family may be ill and unable to access care because of where you live,” he said, explaining that even if institutions try to refund some of the tuition or cost, they wouldn’t be able to refund everything individuals would need. “I actually worry more about what happens when the clouds pass.”
“I think the biggest struggle was making sure students and employees had the technology they needed, at the drop of a hat,” said Melissa Recknor, director of Student Success and Academic Advising at Surry Community College and a student in Appalachian State University’s online Education Specialist (Ed.S.) in Higher Education program. “Students in rural areas don’t necessarily have access to the free internet services that are being provided on top of the lack of technology.”
She notes that for dual-enrolled populations, local county schools are bringing meals to students in need, and she and her team have a drop-in “Zoom room” for students who want to come in without an appointment, in addition to Google Voice numbers to text back and forth. Recknor also pointed out the importance of rural schools as employers, noting there has never been talk of layoffs at her school. “To me, that is huge for a rural population—job security—especially when many companies are having to furlough employees.”
Many rural or smaller campuses spent several weeks preparing for inevitable closures, prioritizing making the transition as smooth as possible for the students they serve. Koricich encouraged students to keep in mind that society will eventually find a new normal, adding that it is important for rural students to take care of and be kind to themselves.
“But when this passes, we all are going to have work to do. None of us get to sit this out, because we’re going to be in a very different world,” he said. “And I want to be in a world where folks from rural communities are in a position to start speaking up more and being heard better. So we need those folks to come back to do the work that we have to do.”
Rainesford Stauffer is a writer, Kentuckian, and author of the forthcoming book from HarperPerennial, An Ordinary Age, about the challenges of emerging adulthood in contemporary America. She’s written for the New York Times Style and Opinion sections, WSJ. Magazine, Teen Vogue, and the Atlantic, among others. She tweets at @Rainesford.