Opinion: Washington and Lee must consider its most marginalized students in coronavirus response

Chase Isbell, ’21, said he hopes the administration will take into account the needs of low-income and marginalized students


Washington Hall, from the steps of Lee Chapel. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Chase Isbell

As the school continues to roll out their response to the impending threat of coronavirus and begins to consider taking further steps to ensure the general health and safety of Washington and Lee students, faculty and staff as well as those in the greater Lexington community, I urge the university to seriously take into account the current situations of its most marginalized students.

While communal action has become necessary in preventing the spread of illness, the reality for many students is that some of the most extreme measures taken by universities across this country are simply not possible for them. For students who lack the means or ability to mobilize as more privileged students do, a complete shutdown of the university and mandatory evacuation of campus housing–a step that other universities have already taken–would leave vulnerable students susceptible to the dangerous effects of the very pandemic the university claims to be fighting.

I by no means am a public health expert, nor am I attempting to advise campus policy regarding best practices for student health. However, as a person with a lower-income background and a student whose campus activism revolves around elevating the voices of marginalized students, I strongly advise the school to take caution in forcing students to leave campus and to acknowledge the burden such a decision would put on students of little means and ability. In making such a decision, the school would be assuming students have strong support systems which would enable their leaving campus and seeking safe housing elsewhere, which is simply not an assumption which acknowledges the harsh realities many international, lower-income, or other marginalized students will have to face under this pandemic. For many students, Washington and Lee remains the most safe and supportive environment for them.

First, many students, especially those who live in coastal states or urban areas with high cases of the virus already, would find themselves in the particularly difficult situation of being quite literally forced into areas significantly more dangerous to their health. However, even for those of us who live out of state but not in areas with high levels of coronavirus, we would run the risk of traveling through areas in which the virus has already spread to and then bringing it back to our own loved ones and communities outside of Rockbridge. For these students, staying in Lexington might perhaps seem a more desirable option considering the health risks associated with travel. Students in such situations–even the most privileged and with the financial means, citizenship/immigration status or able bodies and health which allow for last-minute travel–would be virtually abandoned by the school’s decision to force them to leave campus. However, these are simply the most obvious and visible problematic situations such an extreme policy would create.

The much less visible consequences of enforcing an evacuation of campus are rooted much more directly in this country’s history of structural inequality. Put plainly, not all students have homes to return to. Students who experience homelessness in any of its forms outside of their Lexington residency or who come from homes or families in unstable housing situations will not find themselves in safer nor healthier living situations if turned away from campus housing. Even students who may have negative relationships with their families, as is a reality for many queer and trans youth across this nation, may not have their childhood homes to return to, even if they do not experience homelessness in the traditional sense.

Furthermore, the increasing severity of restrictions on international travel present very serious barriers to students forced to return home when their homes are not within the borders of the United States. We must not assume that international students have the logistical or even legal abilities to travel at the whims of administrative policy. And surely Washington and Lee cannot put them in a situation in which they are to find housing within the U.S. at their own personal expense during a pandemic, simply waiting for an unguaranteed return to campus in the distant future. Additionally, students of underserved communities may find the healthcare and broader social support systems at home equally if not more dissatisfactory than that which they may find here on Washington and Lee’s campus.

Finally, students who come from lower-income backgrounds, or rely entirely on merit scholarships, financial aid or work-study to support their collegiate experience, will bear the literal financial burden of the university’s response to coronavirus in a way more privileged students simply will not. If, as other universities have done, Washington and Lee expects students to leave campus with little to no notice, students would be forced to make expensive travel plans, an inconvenience for some, a hardship for many and a likely impossibility for lower-income students who lack the resources necessary for travel perhaps even during the regular calendar year, let alone during an unexpected call for evacuation.

Such a policy would present the automatic burden of travel expenses, which, quite frankly, is an absurd expectation to place upon students who rely on the social and financial support systems they have formed at this university. Not only would many students be unable to meet these high financial demands outright without at least some form of financial support, but the long-term financial effects must also be considered when acknowledging the particular difficulties lower-income students would experience under extreme policies to the coronavirus. For students who experience food insecurity at home, or who are even at risk of food insecurity on campus, the closing of campus dining services (or even the campus food pantry) would serve as a particularly difficult blow to their support network.

Similarly, many students rely upon their work-study position to provide them with necessary financial support. What are underprivileged students supposed to do with this loss of income? Surely the administration is aware that the funds provided to us by merit scholarships, financial aid and work study not only support our education, but quite literally ensure we can purchase our most basic necessities? Surely they know that the financial support provided by the school extends to our then financially supporting our families as well? If extreme measures are to be taken by students under direction of the university, the financial support systems relied upon by students simply cannot disappear, lest there be very tangible consequences for underprivileged students.

I urge the administration to not take these concerns lightly and heavily consider the often overlooked or underdiscussed consequences our most vulnerable classmates will experience. Put plainly, a forced evacuation with no support from the university with regards to ensuring students ability to travel, find housing and maintain the living standards they currently do on campus would be a wildly irresponsible move. If worst does come to worst, the administration must do more than simply acknowledge the difficult realities extreme responses, especially a forced evacuation, would have on marginalized students. Only direct action, in allowing students to stay on campus as needed, ensuring campus support systems stay in place as long as possible and, perhaps most importantly, providing financial support to students in order to ensure their safe travels and lodgings during this literal pandemic, will suffice. By sending us away without ensuring we have the necessary resources, the school would be abandoning the community of support supposedly present on this campus. And students will inevitably fall through the cracks.