Strategies for Equitable Student Treatment during COVID-19 and Beyond

Questions around equity and access for students during the coronavirus pandemic have come up over and over again. In this post I offer some concrete things you can do to treat students more equitably during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

#1: Stop saying “should”.

“Students should have access to high speed Internet.” (Translation: Students who live in areas with unreliable Internet connectivity are less worthy than their peers with premium telecom packages.)

“Students should be able to submit their assignments on time”. (Translation: I care more about my students complying with assignment deadlines than I care about the students themselves.)

“Students should be able to read a .pdf copy of the readings online. (Translation: Just because I can easily read a .pdf copy of an article online, I don’t care about students who either can’t or prefer not to.)

Stop spouting off about what you think students “should” be able to do. Accept that whatever you think should happen may not (or simply cannot) happen and there is likely nothing you can do about it – except make a commitment to try to meet students where they are at, on their terms. Accept the reality of what is, not what you want it to be.

#2: Stop requiring students to buy new technology.

Requiring students to buy webcams for e-proctoring of their exams is senseless if there are none for sale in any of the shops or online. Requiring them to buy new technology that meets a minimum “standard” of the institution creates financial burdens on less privileged students. It’s a form of financial discrimination that privileges affluent students. If there are “minimum institutional standards” then the institution plays a role in ensuring students have what they need.

#3: Stop the coercive control.

Making statements about what should happen, or what students need to buy is a form of coercive control. The implications are that students will do what they are told “or else” (e.g. or else don’t bother registering, or else drop the course, or else drop out of school entirely) is downright discriminatory. The threat of students not being able to continue their studies if they cannot comply with imposed obligations such as buying a webcam due to financial or other limitations is a form of punishment. The messaging may not be as overt as that, but the implication is there. Trying to coerce students into being something they are not (e.g. financially affluent, academically excellent, socially privileged). This kind of coercive control is not only humiliating for students, it a form of instructional and institutional violence.

#4: Involve students in decision making as much as possible.

I get that institutional leaders are frantically trying to make the right decisions about how to move forward. And there’s lots of factors that are still outside of any individual’s control right now, but that’s no excuse to exclude students from decisions that affect them directly. Whenever possible, engage representatives from student government on committees, councils, and in departmental meetings, or any other meeting where having student representation helps to create inclusivity and equity.

#5: Recognize that there is no such thing as a “typical” student.

The stereotype of the single, white, affluent student who studies diligently in the library and maybe does some varsity sports is long, long gone, if it ever existed in the first place. The reality is that your students are likely to have multiple and competing priorities that include jobs, family or caregiving responsibilities, and come from more diverse backgrounds than the average faculty member experiences in a year. Their living situation might be chaotic, noisy, or unpredictable. This does not equal “bad”. That same living situation could also be happy, lively, and punctuated by moments of spontaneous laughter. Other situations could be the exact opposite: Seemingly calm, cool, and collected to the outside observer, but secretly miserable or abusive. The reality is that we simply cannot know or fathom the multitude of personal or family circumstances students are living in right now.

All of this is to say that as instructors and leaders one of our responsibilities is to stop assuming, and start asking. Stop obliging and start offering. Meet students where they are at, not where you want them to be. In short, focus more students’ dignity and less instructional or institutional demands.

Now more than ever, we need to make a commitment to equitable and just teaching and learning practices.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.

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