As the Fall Quarter approaches, the reality of the proposed learning conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sink in. For students and staff across the University of California campuses, even with Return to Learn plans in place, the situation still feels everchanging. No matter how specific the testing or distancing measures are, plans for this fall will not fully satisfy students whose situations are in flux.
The UC system has a responsibility to its students not only to educate, but also provide an environment that is conducive to learning.
Access to housing and food that many students enjoyed six months ago now are up in the air, and international students may not be allowed back on campus in the fall. This is not an environment conducive to learning, especially when the current social moment surrounding racial justice, while necessary and promising, provides additional emotional stressors for students of color on campus.
Governor Gavin Newsom signed California’s 2020-21 budget into law early last week. Changes to the budget comes in response to earlier attempts from Newsom to slash education budgets and other social services that are needed now more than ever due to the pandemic.
The new budget carves out roughly $202 billion dollars, of which nearly $2 billion will be headed to the California Community College system, the California State University system, and the UC system. The CCC system is set to receive nearly $800 million, while the latter two will each receive just under $500 million each.
Despite similar figures going to each, there is one planned CCC program that varies widely from any required of the UC system. Over the next budget year, the state government plans to provide community colleges with roughly $120 million of state and federal funding “to support a basic needs/learning loss/COVID 19 response block grant to colleges to support expenses such as mental health services, housing and food insecurity, reengagement for students who left college in Spring 2020, technology and development of online courses and student supports.”
This sort of funding is nonexistent within the UC system budget. While the UC system may be too independent budget-wise for the state Legislature to control, that does not mean individual campuses can’t act quickly and reassure students that some of this funding will go to supporting their well-being.
Even though the UC system’s own research from 2017 found that five percent of undergraduate students experienced homelessness the year before and four percent experienced both homelessness and food insecurity, its students are primed to receive no legislatively mandated relief from the state. Though the governor and state Legislature are not mandating any funds be spent to support impacted UC students, the UC system must act on its own accord on behalf of its students.
While CCC students may generally be in a more pressing need category, with a 2019 report stating that 19 percent of students experienced homelessness at some point in the previous year, this does not diminish the struggles of UC students. The situation becomes increasingly pressing because of the widespread economic hardship facing students during the pandemic.
Some student groups at UC San Diego feel that they have not been protected by the university since the pandemic closed campus in March. Undergrads4COLA at UCSD articulated the findings of its Return to Learn Town Hall in late June in an email to the administration, explaining how “students, faculty, and parents are experiencing […] uncertainty, anxiety and insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and UCSD’s Return to Learn program is only exacerbating this uncertainty.”
Although UC campuses across the state are losing money without students on campus, this does not excuse inaction when it comes to supporting students, especially due to discretionary funding from the state in the proposed budget. With $24.4 million designated for “core operations, including … student support services” and a $169.2 million overall increase in the systemwide budget, the UC system needs to act quickly to reassure struggling students that if they return to learn in the fall, they will not be left behind.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, the UC system has financial flexibility that allows itself to broadly provide the necessary aid and services to students in large part due to the new state budget. The longer the UC system goes without supporting its at-risk students, the longer students must deal with the anxiety and frustration that stem from uncertainty. If the UC system portrays itself as supporting its students’ well-being, then a portion of the newly-allocated state budget must be used towards that end.