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Appalachian Students Displaced by Outbreak Get a Lifeline

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Members of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project at the STAY Summer Institute in Marion, Virginia, in July 2019. Members of STAY offered housing support to Berea College students displaced by the outbreak. Photo: Lou Murrey

Colleges and universities are closing across the United States to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus. But while some students are able to continue their studies online, others can’t, and they have a different set of challenges that could limit their ability to even make it back home to their families.

Berea College in eastern Kentucky announced March 10 that it would be moving all classes online for the rest of the semester, and students who were able would need to move off campus. Berea President Lyle Roelofs said every consideration was made to ensure their students were cared for as this transition was made. 

The administration has allowed some students, particularly international students or those who may be experiencing hardships, to remain in their dorms through the end of the semester. Dining services also are staying as operational as possible to accommodate those students. 

Students had to be off campus by March 14, with some flexibility as needed. Classes moved online on the next Monday, March 16. About 150 to 200 of 1,650 total students are expected to remain on campus through the end of the spring semester. 

But Berea College also is a work-study school, where all students must have a federal student labor job. Roelofs said all students will continue being paid their normal wages biweekly for those jobs, even if they are no longer on campus to continue working. Students were also advanced $100 from their upcoming paychecks to help with travel expenses as they moved off campus. 

“Our approach was based on the knowledge that many of our students really don’t have the means that you’d expect from other students at other institutions,” Roelofs said. “Continuing to support them will help with greater income needs they’ll have at home.”

Some of Berea College’s students may not have a stable home to return to. 

After Berea College’s made the announcement to move classes online, the nonprofit Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project began working immediately to fill those gaps. 

Left to right, STAY Project Steering Committee members Garett Nunley, Venus Octavian, Ari Baker and Aria Taibi presenting a power map of Appalachia to the rest of the steering committee in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in February 2019. Photo: Lou Murrey

STAY Project, based in New Market, Tennessee, is a regional network of people aged 14 to 30 from Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Much of their membership is from the Central Appalachian region of those states, and includes people of color, youth from the LGBTQ community, and those living with low income. The mission of the organization is to develop the means for youth to remain and work in their hometowns, instead of contributing to decades-long out-migration to urban centers. 

STAY project coordinator Lou Murrey said people within the STAY network who live in or near Berea reached out to offer housing support to students after the announcement. The steering committee responded immediately, checking in with STAY members to assess their needs. 

Murrey said some young people in Central Appalachia come from unstable or unsafe family structures and are not able to return home. STAY is considering how best to help them as their living situations rapidly change. In particular, they’re looking for ways to help students whose summer housing options may now have shifted.

“As closures continue to happen, there will be many more young people in crisis,” Murrey said, adding that many of these young people were already living in crisis, and these changes will only amplify the challenges they already face. 

Berea College’s administration knew that they’d need to do more to support their student body. The college established a fund to help students with financial need move back home. Roelofs said about 50 students had taken advantage of this fund by March 13. 

The school also is working to provide students with cellphone hotspot technology so they could continue to work online. Many students come from places where internet service is spotty if not nonexistent, and Roelofs said they’d need a way to access the internet to continue their class work online. 

Those connections are important not just for classes. The STAY Project regularly hosts gatherings throughout the year to provide safe space for their membership to commune with each other and discuss the unique issues and challenges they face living in Appalachia.

STAY Project Steering Committee members during a workshop at the STAY Summer Institute in Marion, Virginia, in July 2019. Photo: Lou Murrey

Murrey said STAY is developing plans for their membership to stay connected and reduce isolation they may already feel because of geography and culture.

“Capitalism is already so isolating, even when we’re not living in rural spaces,” Murrey said. “It’s going to be really important to check in with each other and make sure we’re OK and staying connected.” The group is hosting a call this week for members to connect, talk about what they’re facing in their communities and hopefully de-stress. 

They are also coordinating with the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition, whose members are largely college students, to create a mutual aid fund to help young people across the region in anticipation of job losses because of businesses closing and laying off employees.

The fund will prioritize Black, Indigenous and youth of color, as well as young people who are LGBTQ, disabled, chronically ill or otherwise immunocompromised. It would provide for rent, health care, child care, and any other payments young people need to make while out of work. 

Murrey said the school administration was “incredibly proud” of the way STAY members and other young people have responded to this crisis in their own communities. They cite one example of a STAY steering committee member who has started a mutual aid Facebook group in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, that gained 300 members in one day offering to help others in their community. 

Other mutual aid groups are popping up in northeastern Tennessee, Murrey said, and Radical Kindred in western North Carolina is offering much-needed support to the LGBTQ community in Boone. In particular, they’re increasing support for the trans community, which is likely to face increased obstacles as the country moves further into crisis response, and medical care for this population becomes more precarious. 

Roelofs said the support of the campus community, faculty, staff, and students, as well as the support of the larger Berea community, has been essential in making the decision to move to online learning, and students moving off campus.

“Most people really don’t understand the reality of this cohort of students,” Roelofs said. “This is a cohort that already faces enormous challenges. This is not a population that does a good job of advocating for themselves, and it really requires institutional leadership to make it happen.”

“There is a lot of uncertainty of how this [response to COVID-19] is going to happen,” Murrey said. “We need to take care of each other now before it gets worse. We all have the tools to do it; we just need to be thoughtful about how we respond.”

Clarification: This story was updated March 24 to clarify that Berea College is making arrangements for students that may not be able to take online classes.

This story was published with support from the One Foundation.

This article was originally published by YES! Magazine.