POLITICS

What 'Distance Learning' Looks Like For Students Without Computers Or Wi-Fi

“I don’t know if professors have thought about people like me," one community college student said.

James Hill III, a first-year student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, depends on a delicate routine to make his life work. He doesn’t have the money to buy a computer or access Wi-Fi, so he does his homework at his college’s library. In addition to taking a full course load, he works three jobs to pay for his living expenses and is saving up to transfer to a four-year college. 

On Wednesday, that routine was thrown into disarray. To combat the spread of coronavirus, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that all SUNY and CUNY schools ― like the one Hill attends ― would be switching to a “distance learning model,” meaning that all classes would move online. 

The SUNY and CUNY closures will affect hundreds of thousands of students. And students without access to a computer or internet are scrambling to figure out what the rest of the semester will look like for them. 

Community college students like Hill are the ones Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research at the nonprofit research organization Ithaka S+R, says she’s particularly worried about.

“I don’t know how these schools are going to be able to ensure, if they do move online, all their students have access to the technology they need,” she said.

A 2019 survey of over 10,000 community college students, conducted by Wolff-Eisenberg and other researchers, found that only 78% of students reported having reliable access to a computer or laptop. Eight in 10 students said they would find it helpful to be able to borrow or use Wi-Fi hotspots from their university. Over 70% said they would like to borrow computers. 

“I can’t imagine this is going to impact Harvard the same way as it will impact some of the community colleges that are closing,” she said. 

“It felt like they pulled the rug out from underneath me,” says Borough of Manhattan Community College stude
“It felt like they pulled the rug out from underneath me,” says Borough of Manhattan Community College student James Hill III. Campuses around the country have switched to online learning due to the spread of the coronavirus.

The Borough of Manhattan Community College has said it will keep its library open. Hill anticipates that between using the computers there to access classes and do homework, he will spend upwards of 15 hours a week at the library. Under normal circumstances, he would use one of the city’s other public libraries for computer access as backup. But as of Friday, all New York Public Library locations are closed through March. 

If his university library closes, Hill doesn’t know what he’ll do. 

“It felt like they pulled the rug out from underneath me,” Hill told HuffPost of the school closures announcement. “There’s other students in my situation or similar situations. I think there could be a significant number of people at the library.”  

Hill is still waiting to hear back about what will become of his jobs. One can be done virtually ― a paid advocacy fellowship with the group Young Invincibles. Some of the second ― working with the CUNY Census Corps  ― can also be done over the computer. He hasn’t heard about the third ― a work-study job provided through campus. 

It’s money he relies on. He lives in an apartment with a roommate in the Bronx. Without the cash, he will have to turn to an older brother for help with the basics. 

“It’s very important for me to get paid,” Hill said. 

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, is concerned that after a life-altering event like this, some students will choose not to go back to school at all. 

“It’s going to be so financially stressful … some of these students are not going to return to college,” said Goldrick-Rab. “This is a make it or break it moment for them.”

Hill is on the dean’s list. He is involved in multiple student organizations and clubs. He’s in awe of his professors, whom he describes as hardworking and dedicated.  

Nonetheless, “I don’t know if professors have thought about people like me,” he said. 

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