The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and racial inequities are taking a toll on Maryland college campuses, leaders of higher education institutions warned Monday.
At a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee Monday, college leaders said they are promoting more mental health options and providing forums for participating in the national conversations about racism.
“Our students are coming back with all kinds of experiences — not just COVID-19-related now, but in terms of the social unrest, the injustices, the racism that they are basically demonstrating against,” said Morgan State University President David Wilson. “And we have a history at Morgan and, what we know, if we don’t really provide the kind of support to students who are having those experiences it is not going to be a good thing.”
About 68 percent of Morgan State University students are African American, a group that has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, Wilson noted. When it became apparent that the pandemic also was exposing the digital divide between the affluent and the less well-off, Morgan shipped free laptops to students who did not have technology access.
Wilson said he enrolled in two online courses to better understand students’ ability to learn in a remote environment, especially in a stressful environment in which students may have family members sick or dying from COVID-19.
“Wow, did I learn a lot – a hell of a lot,” Wilson said. “And I learned that, in that space, everybody who is at home is coming to class. You have all kinds of distractions. I learned how incredibly nurturing are professors – who when they open the class have just 10 minutes of check-in time”
Javier Miyares president of University of Maryland Global Campus, said the pandemic has highlighted opportunity gaps in society. He said he sees an affordability dichotomy in higher education’s future, rather than an offline versus online one.
“There is a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color. There is an economic collapse, skyrocketing unemployment, that also has affected disproportionately poor communities,” Miyares said. “There is a reckoning with our long history of oppression of African Americans, particularly the devastating series of killings of African Americans by the police force. All these three crises underscore how the lives of minorities are divided. This is a lot of crisis, but as future college student cohorts become majority-minority, the combined impact will be felt by higher education for years to come.”
Kim Schatzel, president of Towson University, said universities need to consider remote learning’s negative impact on students with learning disabilities, particularly ADHD.
Like other Maryland colleges, Towson will take COVID-19’s emotional impact into consideration by being flexible as professors decide whether to hold in-person classes.
“We don’t really know what’s gone on in people’s lives over the past three or four months or what’s going on with them in the next three to four months,” Schatzel said. “But, they could’ve had family members laid off or they could be dealing with illness within the household itself.”
Wilson said he brought in school psychologists to give a presentation to his top administrators on combating stress. He said Morgan has also committed to adding two student psychologists.
Although Maryland universities pivoted to online classes in March, several administrators said this is not a long-term option for their institutions.
Schatzel said the on-campus college experience is important to many 18- to 23-year-olds
“When you’re in a classroom, you develop relationships in a different way and oftentimes you learn as much from the person sitting next to you as you do from the professor sitting in front of the room or standing in front of the room,” Schatzel said. “So, group projects that they work with, presentations to be able to make those kind of friendships, are long-lasting,” Schatzel said.
The University System of Maryland, Loyola University Maryland and Morgan plan for a mix of remote and in-person classes. Towson and Morgan are reducing on-campus capacity and leasing additional off-campus apartments to house students.
Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said universities have options when reopening, but they must all provide PPE, practice contact tracing, isolate and quarantine.