The Steve Fund Task Force Report: Adapting and Innovating to Promote Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being of Young People of Color: COVID-19 and Beyond

The Steve Fund Crisis Response Task Force published recommendations on mitigating the mental health risks to students of color caused by COVID-19 and the killing of unarmed Black Americans.  The recommendations of the task force, which includes students, mental health experts, and representatives from colleges and universities, are intended to prompt action, investment, and innovation promoting the well-being of young people of color in higher education.

The task force advises that higher education institutions should:

Build Trust Through Racial Trauma-Informed Leadership

Take a Collaborative Approach to Promote Mental Health for Students of Color by having offices such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Student Affairs partner with counseling centers

Engage Faculty and Staff to Support Mental Health of Students of Color by incorporating practices to promote inclusion and belonging in classrooms and across the campus, and educating faculty and staff on identifying signs of mental distress.

Treat Student Mental Health as a Priority Area

Leverage Community and External Stakeholders to Promote Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being of Students of Color

In an interview with the Mary Christie Foundation, Steve Fund Senior Medical Director, Dr. Annelle Primm said, “All of the challenges that were brought on by the pandemic really intensified the struggles students of color were already dealing with including being more likely than White students to feel isolated on campus, less likely to feel like they were included, more likely to feel emotionally overwhelmed at college and more likely to report keeping the difficulty of college to themselves.”

Coronavirus Impact

Education Dive reports that colleges are turning to virtual mental health and financial offerings to address growing student needs. Several colleges are providing apps to access mental health services or contracting with teletherapy providers. Other schools, looking to curb the increasing numbers of low income students dropping out of college, are engaging services to help students struggling with their finances. About a dozen institutions have signed on to use InsideTrack, a student services nonprofit that launched a grant-funded emergency coaching network for up to 5,000 college students who are experiencing pandemic-related challenges, such as mental health issues or financial hardship.

In an op-ed in The Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia student Bryce Wyles argues that the University should prioritize protecting student mental health during the pandemic. Wyles argues that the university must recognize that “students are battling increased stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, during this semester and beyond our academic lives,” and alter their policies to reflect the new reality. He criticized the University for reallocating dormitories to quarantine zones days before their arrival on campus, augmenting uncertainty, and choosing to follow its grading policy for the fall. According to Wyles, this decision ignores “inequality in student access to adequate technology, and thus inequality in access to advising, library resources, telemedicine and even virtual class meetings.” He calls on UVA to improve communication between Psychological Services and students, and encourages Student Health to work directly with students to facilitate student-run mental health groups.

New research from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) looking at undergraduate, graduate, and professional students’ experiences during the pandemic illustrates that students from low-income backgrounds and students of color report higher levels of distress across multiple fronts, including food and housing security, depressive symptoms, and financial strains. The sample consisted of 45,000 students, the largest higher ed COVID-related survey on student experience thus far. NASPA is holding a virtual event, First-generation Students’ Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic, on October 1st, where the researchers will share their data and discuss the disparities experienced by first-generation students during the pandemic.

The Texas Tribune explores the reality of pandemic-era college life in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, a region just north of the Mexican border where over 90% of the population is Hispanic and residents are at a disproportionately high risk for catching and dying from the coronavirus. At UT-Rio Grande Valley, administrators ultimately put 85% of classes fully online in an attempt to keep as many people off campus as possible. However, while many students feel safer, some say there are significant downsides to remote learning, especially at an institution where up to 20% of students don’t have reliable internet at home, and many live in multigenerational households that can make it difficult to focus on schoolwork.

CNN reported on a group of immunocompromised college students that formed a virtual support group where members can talk about their shared feelings of isolation during the pandemic. The group calls themselves “Chronic and Iconic.” Starting in July at a five person Zoom, the group has grown to over 50 students across the US. They share fears about returning to campus, frustration over rearranging schedules when classes aren’t offered online, and difficult decisions about taking a leave of absence.  “I think one thing that the media and schools don’t seem to understand is how these policies are impacting the mental health of their students,” Cameron Lynch, one of the founders of the group, told CNN. “By saying that in-person learning is essential, that’s basically saying the community can function without us, and is better off when we’re not there.”

CNN highlights the drastic increases in the positivity rate of coronavirus tests at colleges across the country. Among its 30,000 students, the University of Iowa has had 1,836 positive cases.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College that found that colleges and universities that reopened for face-to-face instruction in recent weeks might have caused an extra 3,200 coronavirus cases a day.

CNN explored what went wrong in college’s reopening plans, including that colleges placed the burden of complete compliance on students. Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Harvard Medical School said, “Any public health plan that requires radical changes in behavior and perfect compliance is doomed to fail. And that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Some U.S. college students are reporting peers violating COVID-19 guidelines to administrators, according to Reuters. At the University of Missouri, one student is posting photos and videos of students gathered in large groups at pools, outside bars and other places on social media. While the university has a form on its website for reporting violations anonymously, the student says that posting online creates more accountability.  “When it’s up there publicly and people are retweeting it, and the university’s getting tagged over and over – then they have to reply,” the student told Reuters. At Boston University, which has received about 125 anonymous tips about violations, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore says that most tips come from students rather than faculty and staff.

In an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed, Alyssa Lederer, an assistant professor in the department of global community health and behavioral sciences at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and Jeni Stolow, an assistant professor of instruction in the department of social and behavioral sciences at Temple University’s College of Public Health, explain that relying on student contracts to change behavior during the pandemic is problematic because most do not adhere to accepted evidence-based practices. They lay out the circumstances under which contracts may be effective at changing behavior, including addressing a specific and measurable behavior; have rewards and consequences, and are time-bound. “But the COVID-19 student contracts we have seen to date address broad behaviors and lack positive and negative reinforcement, monitoring, and a clear-cut time frame,” they write. They recommend that colleges call upon their behavioral scientists, making them integral members of any planning efforts, and engage students, who can provide insights into what they will be responsive to.

Resident Assistants are being asked to monitor and police student behavior and public health violations on top of their regular responsibilities, while living in a situation that could endanger their health. The added burden of the pandemic has caused some to strike and others quit their positions, which threatens colleges’ public-health measures.

NPR reports on the legal challenges that punished students are bringing against their colleges and universities. Several of the most severe punishments, like those at Northeastern University, have garnered national media attention. Attorney Andrew Miltenberg who has long represented students accused of sexual assault, claiming they were victims of a rush to judgment, is now saying the same about alleged coronavirus superspreaders. “They’re not allowing any discussion or any mitigating circumstances. People are being summarily suspended, and there is no due process,” Miltenberg said. Will Creeley, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil rights advocacy group says, “Schools are taking a suspend first, expel first, and ask questions later stance.”

Western Washington University and a student government organization are launching a social media campaign to help young adults take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. “COVID-19 in Real Life” is meant to reach college students ages 18 to 26 years old, and publishes positive messages created by students for students in the hope that they will be widely shared. Associated Students spokesman Hunter Stuehm said the messages offer tips for what students can do, including safe social behavior, having difficult conversations with roommates and housemates about following guidelines, and how to maintain their mental health during the pandemic.

On September 16, the Daily, a daily news podcast published by the New York Times, traced one student’s quarantine experience after testing positive for COVID-19 at the University of Alabama and improvements that have been made to the University’s quarantine services and supervision for students in recent days.

After initially suspending its football season amid the public health crisis, the Big Ten, a top NCAA Division I conference, reconsidered and announced the season would go on. The league’s university heads voted unanimously to start playing again in late October. Student athletes, coaches and sports staff who are on the field for games and practices will undergo daily coronavirus testing.  The Big Ten was under pressure to resume play from some student-athletes, fans, and high-level athletics officials and politicians. The decision was met with swift backlash from some students and their parents.

In an op-ed in the Daily Princetonian, student Julia Chaffers, writes about the misplaced priorities of colleges and universities, which she argues should be focused on the health and wellbeing of students. She writes, “The return of college football is not a positive sign of a country overcoming the pandemic; it is yet another example of a society unwilling to face the reality of the pandemic. And once again, young people and people of color will pay the price while the powerful profit.”

In a Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Sun Times, the parent of a college student attending a Big Ten school expresses their disappointment that “conference caved to the demands of those who value football over the health and safety of their children, other students and the community.” The letter-writer says their child, who is in a high risk group for COVID-19, does not play a sport, but “Football players attend class. Football players attend parties. Football players go to bars. The decision to play football inherently increases the risk to all students, not just the players. Perhaps the football players signed a waiver agreeing to hold the Big Ten blameless if they get infected. My child signed no such waiver, nor were they ever offered the opportunity to do so as part of what would have been a comprehensive process to educate my child on the risks of attending school during a pandemic.”

The Editorial Board of the Baltimore Sun wrote, “It’s beyond disappointing to hear the Big Ten Conference, which looked so honorable and courageous just one month ago when it canceled the 2020 season, has reversed itself and decided that football can resume as soon as Oct. 23, albeit without any fans in the stands.” They decried the risks placed on young student athletes,  while the rewards will go to their schools and coaches making seven-figure salaries. The board argues that Maryland should have refused to participate, and that all Big Ten university presidents, including University of Maryland’s President Darryll Pines, will “have a lot of explaining to do should a single football player suffer serious harm as a result of this decision.”

For WGBH, Harvard Sociologist Tony Jack, who played football at Amherst College and authored “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” says that colleges should not be spending money on testing athletes if they’re not investing equal resources to help students and instructors access the internet, basic needs and mental health services. He said, “If we are not willing to invest in these measures, we shouldn’t be investing so much extra resources into assuring that we have a season this year if we can’t even have a semester.

Mental and Behavioral Health

Luciana Guardini, outreach coordinator for Counseling and Psychological Services at the Indiana University Student Health Center discusses the importance of faculty and staff recognizing and responding to students in distress. Guardini recommends keeping an eye out for red flags that may be a sign of a student who is struggling, some of which she lists, and outlined when it would be appropriate to refer students to a professional in the counseling center.

Syracuse University Student Association is working to create a partnership with My Student Support Program, an organization that offers college students an app that features fitness lessons, health assessments and mental health support 24/7. SA President Justine Hastings said, “I recognize that this continues to be a difficult time for many of us dealing with anxiety, change, uncertainty and loss. I feel very strongly that we need to meet this moment with full support of our students and their needs.”

Lean On Me College Park, an anonymous, peer-to-peer text service, recently launched at the University of Maryland. The service, which operates independently from the university, was originally spearheaded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016 and has groups at the University of Chicago and University of California, Santa Barbara. The service is non-crisis, but offers students a chance to talk through issues such as grief, loneliness and academic stress. “I just thought it would be a really good addition and would open the door to a lot of people as an avenue to reach out,” said Shi, who is president of the group and has worked with other similar services in the past, such as 7 Cups and the Crisis Text Line.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The Trump administration announced that it was investigating whether Princeton University has violated federal civil rights law. The move followed a recent statement by Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber on efforts to combat racism on campus, in which he expressed contrition for a history of “systemic racism” at the university. “Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” Robert King, the department’s assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, wrote in a six-page letter to Princeton. The move was castigated by the American Council on Education as unwarranted, unprecedented and politically motivated. Princeton spokesman Ben Chang said the school has complied with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity. “It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law,” Mr. Chang wrote. “The University disagrees and looks forward to furthering our educational mission by explaining why our statements and actions are consistent not only with the law, but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country.”

In an op-ed in the Hechinger Report, Darwin Velasquez, the National Dreamer Coordinator for College Track, a comprehensive college completion program, discusses the Supreme Court’s June DACA decision which blocked the White House’s attempt to end the program, and what he wishes educators understood about the reality for Dreamers. While the decision was a relief for the  3.6 million undocumented young people currently living in the U.S, in which Velasquez himself is included, the decision is “far from a permanent solution.” He outlines actions that those working in education can and should take to advocate for Dreamers without the need for sweeping national policy changes. He writes, “teachers and counselors should have heightened awareness of the emotional stress undocumented students face every day and offer to connect them with counseling or free immigration legal clinics.” At the college level, he believes every school should host a resource center for undocumented students.

In the Hechinger Report, Margee M. Ensign, President of Dickinson College, shared a letter from a Vietnamese student who changed his mind about coming to the United States due to the failed response to the coronavirus pandemic and anti-international student sentiment. She writes that college and university leaders across the U.S. are receiving similar letters. She wrote, “America, the world leader in higher education, stands at the precipice of losing the economic, intellectual and cultural contributions international students bring to our society and its college and university communities. This trend is also a harbinger of this country’s loss of soft power around the world.”

A group of University of Minnesota students protested on campus, calling on the university to include them in campus police accountability. “We’re calling for a critical look at the UMPD, but we’re also calling for student control. We’re not just calling for accountability; we’re actually looking for change,” said Nadia Shaarawi, a senior at the U of M and a member of an action based, social justice group on campus called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

In an op-ed in the Hechinger Report, Nicole Lynn Lewis, the founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that provides direct service support to young parents earning their college degrees and advocates nationally for the unique needs of student parents and their families explains why black student parents are at the epicenter of the student debt crisis. Lewis writes, “Colleges and universities must look closely at why the burden of student debt falls disproportionately on Black parents. We need to name the racist policies baked into our postsecondary system that contribute to this unequal burden. And we need to acknowledge the oppressive policies that make it unnecessarily difficult for parents of color to earn a degree and to do so without the anchor of crushing debt. Only then can we create and implement policies that support Black families on their journey to opportunity and prosperity.”

Student Success and Social Mobility

In the New York Times, David Deming, a professor and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that community colleges could provide a road to recovery as millions of laid-off American workers need new careers. According to Deming, community colleges could partner with employers in the private sector to train workers for careers that meet local needs and pay middle-class wages. To do this, Deming says, requires funding, and Congress will need to provide financial relief to state and local governments.

Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, lays out four steps to improving college access and create a student-centric higher education system; His recommendations include: Reframe postsecondary education as a public good; Eliminate hurdles in the college admission process which is complex, cumbersome and bureaucratic; Change the image of college admission to be accepted every person’s right; and vote to hold elected officials accountable for postsecondary education funding.

Education Dive reports that Oregon lawmakers cut funding for its free college promise program by $3.6 million in mid-August, leading to some students having their grants revoked. New York may reduce its free tuition scholarships or prioritize current recipients. Experts say free college proposals will likely take a back seat to other budget priorities amid the pandemic.

Substance Use

According to a new Rutgers study published in the journal Disability and Health Journal, college students with physical and cognitive disabilities use illicit drugs more, and have a higher prevalence of drug use disorder, than their non-disabled peers.

Basic Needs

The first project of the University of Minnesota Student Association Basic Needs Task Force, launched last spring in response to growing food and housing challenges, will be to develop a resource guide for students on campus who are struggling with food and housing insecurity. “If you are going to school, you should have the basic necessities to achieve your academic goals without having to stress about, ‘Am I going to be able to afford rent? Am I going to be able to afford food? And am I going to be in a place that’s safe for me to attain my education?’” said Kyle Sorbe, chair of the Basic Needs Task Force.

Political Engagement

Student groups and state politicians criticized the University of Georgia for claiming to be unable to safely provide space for students to vote in-person on campus while having announced a plan in August to enable 23,000 fans to attend UGA football games in-person. “From the student perspective, it’s definitely disappointing to see UGA prioritize football games, and just how long and hard they’ve been working to get those in the works and get to a good point where everyone is comfortable. It’s hard to not see them fight just as hard to provide a safe environment for the on-campus early voting,” said senior Juliet Edens, the communications director of Fair Fight UGA, part of the voting rights group established by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. In response to swift national condemnation, the University later reversed course, releasing a statement that stated, “While the University cannot host an election site at the Tate Center during the pandemic, the institution remains more than willing to make a safer site, such as the Coliseum (UGA football stadium), available as approved by the Secretary of State and local election office.” UGA Votes had sought to secure Stegeman Coliseum in August and submitted a proposal approved by the University of Georgia Athletic Association, which was deemed “infeasible” until UGA’s  announcement.