San Diego City College student Xenia Brady can tell you about the seemingly insurmountable challenges those enrolled at California’s community colleges face in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 30-year-old returning student is striving to transfer to UCLA, earn a bachelor’s degree in literature and embark on a career as a high school English teacher, and is struggling financially after losing her job in catering. Others have it worse. “I know people who are using their cell phones to Zoom into class and write their papers,” Brady said. “You’d walk into the library pre-COVID and pretty much every computer was being used by people who lacked a laptop or didn’t have WiFi access. But the libraries are closed now. Students are hurting.”

Just look at statewide results of a Chancellor’s Office survey conducted by the RP Group. Thousands of students reported difficulty accessing academic counseling, financial aid, tutoring and library services.  Nearly 20 percent reported no or poor access to the internet as well as personal and family challenges:

  • Twenty percent of students said they have been furloughed or laid off during the pandemic, and half report their incomes are lower.
  • Forty-one percent say the biggest challenge to online learning is the lack of interaction with their peers and 40 percent saying the top educational challenge is the feeling of isolation in an online environment.
  • Fifty-seven percent of students are dealing with basic needs challenges, including housing and food insecurity and homelessness. 
  • More than 4 in 10 students say they are being challenged by needing to care for family members while going to school.

“I was going to drop all my classes, to be honest, but the counselors at (San Joaquin) Delta College encouraged me to keep going, so I just dropped two classes, seven units total,” said Elisa Espinoza-Escobar, who is raising five children, including a newborn, and lost her job. “At the beginning, I didn’t have a computer and was using one of those Obama phones for my classes. It just wasn’t a workable situation. I have a lot of support from the college, but it’s still hard.”

We must do better. We are confronting head-on with the cumulative impacts from the relentless pandemic so that more students don’t hit the pause button on their studies, thus threatening the most effective pathway toward upward social mobility.

At a time when the federal government is doing all it can to reverse years of efforts promoting equity and equality, investing in our community colleges has never been more important. Which is why this past spring, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and more than 75 organizations advocating on our behalf partnered in pushing for the resources critical in dealing with the unprecedented crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. The governor and Legislature heard our collective voice, allocating $120 million for a COVID-19 Response Fund Grant that has helped close the digital divide among students who otherwise would be left behind during the transition to online learning, providing professional development opportunities for faculty and professional staff, supplying cash grants to students in need, and more.

We need to keep up the pressure in Washington and urge Congress and the president to approve a meaningful stimulus package that includes resources to help students get the supports they need to succeed during this pandemic. 

California must seize this opportunity to innovate in education while maintaining its longstanding commitment to equity. It won’t be easy. We recognize that. The future of California, however, may depend on it.