By Felicia Darling, author of Teachin’ It!

We all need more helpers, empathizers, and leaders right now during this coronavirus crisis. This is a tough time in the US. However, it is particularly challenging for community college students, as many lack the basic socioeconomic safety net of more middle-class students. As a result, they will be disproportionally impacted by this global emergency. Community college students possess bucketloads of resilience as they have overcome great challenges to attend college. However, they also have intersectional identities that indicate they are less likely to complete four-year degrees. For example, from student-teacher conversations this semester, I gleaned that 25% of my students overcame substance addictions, 23% rebounded from spending time in prison, 63% identify as students of color, 90% are first-generation college students, 18% are struggling with mental health issues, 30% have disabilities, and 14% identify as LGBTQ+. These groups are underrepresented among students who earn four-year degrees. A big hurdle for many community college students is learning how to do college. Now students have to learn how to be successful at college while navigating a global pandemic. This is where community college faculty can be leaders on the front lines during this emergency. Instructors can make the difference between community college students achieving their dreams—or not.

After a two-week hiatus, on the first day back to class, I joined our real-time Zoom class a half-hour early in case students wanted to talk one-on-one. I spent the first 30-40 minutes of class leading a whole-class discussion about our coronavirus situation. The conversation was not about the politics or the science of the situation. It was about its impact on us—those of us in this class. I called out the elephant in the coronavirus room—mental health. I began with my own story about how I and other instructors were struggling with depression and anxiety at times in the last two weeks. I talked about how I was overeating, and that it is normal for people to engage in their go-to coping strategies during times of stress. I shared that I went to Zoom psych counseling. Also, I explained that my socioeconomic privilege allowed me to get paid to work from home—and that sadly this was not the case for everyone in class. I emphasized that we would all get through this and our coping skills would get better over time. Students shared stories about their therapy sessions, financial challenges, and their fears about getting sick. This opened the door for me to connect students with financial and psych services available at both the college and government levels. While instructors are not first-responders like medical workers or grocery store clerks who put their lives on the line every day, instructors are first responders in the sense that we are front line providers of emotional support and accurate information during this global emergency. Also, we may be the only one who notices when a student is in financial or emotional trouble and needs an intervention.

Below are some instructor moves to support students’ mental health and academic success during this pandemic:

  • Use synchronous learning to keep the community of powerful learners intact. Your class may be the only place where students are connecting with others socially. Instructors can leverage the community of powerful learners, which they co-developed with students during the in-person class, to provide ongoing support. Some students may have disrupted schedules due to the pandemic and instructors can provide an alternative method for attending class—like viewing a video of the day’s class and completing a make-up quiz. If instructors do asynchronous learning, they can meet with students one-on-one to specifically discuss how students are doing during this difficult time.
  • Link students to resources like psych services, financial resources, free food, housing opportunities, and other campus services. Students may feel overwhelmed and may need to explicitly be linked with resources—even if the college has sent out student emails.
  • Ask students to share tips with the class about how they are staying healthy and mentally strong. Have a class challenge, where you all commit together to getting through the crisis as healthy and mentally fit as possible. Ask students to share their favorite ideas for coping and for keeping healthy. Post them on a forum.
  • Be a leader on the front lines of this pandemic. You may be the only person in a leadership position with whom these students interact regularly. Become an expert on up-to-date safety guidelines and mental health strategies. In the same way that first-generation-college students look to instructors—the only one they may know with an advanced degree—for guidance on how to navigate college, instructors can lead students on how to navigate this crisis. Maybe this just means explaining to them your own successful strategies or linking them to resources. Maybe this means bringing in speakers from Psych Services to address the class.

The bottom line is that community college instructors are on the front lines during this coronavirus pandemic. We are showing up to teach students how to be successful in college, as always. However, now we are doing it, while we all are simultaneously navigating a global crisis. While medical first responders are risking their lives to quell the rise in cases, we are doing our parts to make sure that students emerge from this crisis, healthy and continuing on their journey to achieve their educational dreams. Our continued work ensures that in a post-coronavirus world, social and economic mobility will continue to become increasingly attainable for all students.

Featured image via Angelqiu122 on Wikimedia Commons