In Alabama, COVID-19 has our state colored red for a reason other than its political party representation. Our state is considered a ‘hot spot’ due to the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths. As our nation’s education system grapples with safe ways to re-open in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, communities where inequities already exist are now faced with greater disparities.
Lateshia C.’s experience this spring exemplifies the challenges that students are facing as schools transition from traditional learning to virtual learning in both K-12 and postsecondary institutions. Lateshia C. is a 27-year-old single mother of two who attends community college with the hopes of becoming a nurse. With the unforeseen novel COVID-19 pandemic, Lateshia’s path to attaining a degree has been challenged by the college’s campus closure and transition to fully virtual learning. She does not have internet in her home and new internet installation was not deemed an essential service during the state’s stay-at-home order. Therefore, in order to receive and complete her assignments, she had to drive nearly 20 miles from Spanish Fort to Mobile to get access to the internet at her sister’s home, which was both a health risk and an additional financial burden due to the cost of gas. No student’s grades should be dependent on whether the roads are too flooded to reach internet access.
Lateshia is just one of thousands of students who are faced with access challenges. Other students who have enrolled in online courses used computer labs on campus due to lack of technology or broadband access at home. Many homes have only one computer. Now, who has priority when schools reopen when there are multiple students in the household? When nearly 82,000 students enrolled in an Alabama two- and four-year institution receive Pell Grants, access to technology is an expense many can’t afford. Even if a student can afford to purchase a computer, what good is it if they don’t have access to the internet or WiFi?
Every day, we are bombarded with data on the economic impact COVID-19 is having on our state, nation, and world. A recent survey reveals that one out of three Alabama college students face basic needs disparities. We have to remember people are attached to these numbers. How do we ensure that students are completing their postsecondary programs and able to enter the workforce as highly skilled employees? We must find ways to get more citizens to and through a postsecondary pathway. It is more pertinent than ever. In order for our country to recover from the negative economic impacts of this pandemic, we must invest in our best asset: human capital.
As our local, state, and federal leaders navigate this pandemic, I challenge them to put the word equity in action. While distributing stimulus checks may address the short-term needs of some of our community members, we must also find ways to ensure equitable access to education. It is not only an economic imperative, but a moral imperative.