After the University of Notre Dame and Michigan State University became the latest colleges to move classes online because of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump urged schools to continue with in-person learning. (Aug. 19)

AP Domestic

Jasmine Justice hit her breaking point during the last week of September.

Overwhelmed at the juggling act of three full-time gigs — as a community college student, an employee and a mom — Justice crumbled. She ignored reminder emails from her instructors to send in her assignments. “I wasn’t comprehending what I was reading. I was looking at diagrams that made no sense.” On Zoom work meetings, she noted her pale complexion and dark under-eye circles. Her appetite disappeared. She snapped at her 17-year-old daughter, Josiah, a high school senior also cooped up inside their small apartment. 

“Being a community college student, it’s a balancing act,” says Justice, 39, a student at Pierce College in Lakewood, Washington, about 50 miles south of Seattle. “And at any moment, the scales could tip.” 

Across the country, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend normalcy and infect Americans, students of every level are trying to adjust to virtual learning and socially distanced schools. But the virus and the ensuing recession have taken a particularly hard toll on community college students like Justice. They’re often older, balancing school and full-time work. Many are single parents. Statistically, they’re often the first in their family to pursue post-secondary education and likely to come from a lower socioeconomic bracket — which impacts access to distance learning necessities like high-speed internet. 

And during the pandemic, they’re dropping out, or sidelining their education plans. For these students, delaying their education could have devastating consequences.

Rethinking college during coronavirus? You risk not graduating

Race- and class-based gaps already rampant in college achievement could grow to a gaping chasm, experts fear, long after the virus is under control.

“We’ve never experienced anything like (the pandemic) in our lifetime. … The majority of our students are lower-income earners, and if faced with, ‘How am I going to put food on the table?’ versus ‘How am I going to take a class at community college?’ we know what one they’re going to pick,” says Martha Parham at the American Association of Community Colleges. “We already see evidence that the gap is widening — but how do you plan for that when you’re building the plane in flight for the students you have?”

At Southern State Community College in Ohio, enrollment has dropped 16% even as the campus welcomed students back for some in-person learning — provided they were wearing masks. (Photo: Courtesy Southern State Community College)

Enrollment is already down 8% nationwide — unusual during a recession — and the economic impact could be significant. Community college programs tend to graduate students who feed directly into the workforce, people like nurses, electricians, mechanics and dental hygienists. In 2012, for example, community college-educated workers added roughly $800 billion to the U.S. economy.

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