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Coronavirus and school-closings expose another pandemic: American inequity

Harvard students carried boxes as they walked through Harvard's campus to begin the process of packing up their things.
Harvard students carried boxes as they walked through Harvard's campus to begin the process of packing up their things.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Children don’t get coronavirus.

That’s what my 9-year-old niece told me on FaceTime. She’s too young to understand that even though only 0.2 percent of reported coronavirus cases were children who got critically ill, this virus is affecting our youth.

As college campuses and schools shut down across the nation, housing and food insecure students are at risk of hunger and homelessness. Harvard students have to move out by Sunday at 5 p.m. Where will they go with such little notice? How will they get there? Can they afford it?

Twenty percent of Harvard’s student body receives full financial aid. More than 15 percent of the students are first-generation college students. And Harvard is comprised of more than 10,000 international students and scholars — about 800 of them undergrads. They are expected to box up their lives and get out of the country in a few days? Cold world.

Coronavirus ended their school year. Students explain the frustrating 'great Harvard evacuation'
On Tuesday, Harvard moved all classes online. They also announced a requirement for students to vacate dorms. (Produced by: Kami Rieck and Tyler Dolph/Globe Correspondents)

I know. I was a first-gen college kid on financial aid with partial academic scholarships. I worked. And before I went off to Norfolk State University, I had no permanent address. I lived between a few places and out of a trunk and some bags. For me, campus life meant stability.

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Had I been told to evacuate campus, I would have had to hitch a ride with friends the way I did every summer, spring, and winter break. I would have had to convince my job to let me switch locations and hope to get hours. I would have been sleeping on couches or trying to share a bed with best friends and family members.

My college dorm was the only real space I had to call my own. But I had it better than a lot of kids. I wasn’t hungry. I had people looking out for me. My family wasn’t across the world. They were a few hours away. There was no coronavirus upending my life.

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Harvard, like so many universities, like our government and hospitals, too, is not prepared for a pandemic. That’s in part due to a president who eliminated CDC positions and funding dedicated to global health and pandemic response back in 2018.

But even now, the CDC guidelines recommend making meals and housing available even if classes are suspended, so long as no cases have been identified in the dorms. Yet here we are, assuming all students have the privilege of a permanent address, Wi-Fi, basic meals, and health care.

Wednesday, authorities closed the three North End campuses of the Eliot K-8 School for the next week. Can their parents afford to stay home, too? Do all of them have enough food to eat? What about the cost of child care?

Boston Public Schools serve free breakfast and lunch regardless of income status. Across the nation, thousands of schools are closing while some 22 million students depend on free or reduced-price school lunch.

The House Committee on Education and Labor introduced three proposals for meal assistance for schools closed or operating remotely to help prevent coronavirus. These bills would allow school officials to distribute food in other settings, flexibility in what is offered, and states to access funds for meal distribution.

This is the kind of response we need as we are continually reminded of the economic inequities hurting our country’s most vulnerable people. But we cannot forget our older kids, our college students.

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Harvard sent an e-mail to students saying those receiving financial aid would get a $200 credit toward storing or shipping items. The university also is offering to help book flights for those students, although the aid there will be determined by a student’s financial needs. That’s it, coming from a university with a $40.9 billion endowment. Students shouldn’t have to crowd-source help.

Harvard’s not cheap. Tuition alone is $47,730. Harvard students who live on campus pay $17,682 for room and board. They pay a $1,206 health fee, plus a $3,700 insurance plan. Student services cost them $2,989. The student activities fee is $200. I did the math. That’s roughly $2,864 a month.

Since the only thing being offered to them for the duration of the semester is online classes, each student is owed about $8,592 for services they won’t receive. Even if they are on financial aid, this is the money allotted for them. And every dollar could make a difference.

We treat our youth as if they are indispensable in this country, like they are not the very future of our livelihood. And when they speak out, we either clap our hands without ever taking action or we shut them down.

Harvard is just one school to shut its doors. Hundreds of thousands of kids across America are being forced off campuses. When University of Dayton students were told they had to vacate campus Wednesday with just a day’s notice, about 1,000 students protested and were met with police in riot gear launching pepper balls.

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They have a right to be mad. They’ve been taught education is the great equalizer and the key to success. School is supposed to be a safe place.

Yet, we live in a country where college is hardly a leveler at all. On average, Black college graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 earn $3.34 less per hour than white grads, according to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute.

We live in a country so unprepared for a pandemic we don’t have enough tests and we can’t house or feed the students who have paid to be housed and fed. We assume everyone has the privilege to work remotely and live in quarantine.

We live in a country that, faced with a mass health scare, first reacts with xenophobia and mixed messages, then limited resources and some awareness. But we’ve been living with systemic injustices that have created an equity gap nearly impossible to close, effectively making poverty a pandemic we refuse to acknowledge.

So here we are, living in the time of coronavirus, and the harsh realities of our historically broken system are made more clear with no solution in sight.

We’d rather feed folk lies about educating and working their way out of economic oppression and send them home when the sick truth can’t be denied.

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Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee