Elected Officials Address NYC College Students’ Pandemic Concerns

Senator Robert Jackson, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein responded to COVID-19-related concerns from students representing universities and colleges across New York City.

Many universities have placed their campuses in NYC. College students from NYC schools recently spoke with local and state officials about various issues they currently face. (Staff Photo by Jake Capriotti)

New York Elected Representatives and New York City college students discussed issues facing college students in the age of COVID-19.

Student representatives from Young Invincibles — an organization that addresses issues of health care, higher education and economic security for young adults — shared their experiences as New York City college students living through the pandemic.

Topics covered included access to mental health services, housing and food insecurity as well as emergency funds for struggling students.

New York State Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Harvey Epstein fielded student questions, with both emphasizing the need for a federal bailout to allow for CUNY and SUNY systems to best support students. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has warned that budget cuts to higher education, K-12 and healthcare may come soon if the federal government does not provide additional funding.

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Mental health resources proved to be a key concern for students. However, Glick explained that even with additional funding, counselor availability on college campuses may remain an issue.

“We have to get federal bailout dollars and if they arrive, [counselor availability] will still be a problem,” Glick said at the event. “The flip side is that this crisis has made people realize the inequities in our society and the fact that people like myself are not struggling the same as people in minority communities or as young people are struggling.”

Glick emphasized that while mental health resources on campuses may remain elusive, the state has set up a mental health hotline for which 10,000 mental health professionals have volunteered their time to take calls.

Around 78% of CUNY enrollment are minority students and before the pandemic around 48% of 22,000 CUNY students responded to a survey saying they faced food insecurity, making these students especially vulnerable to the financial and emotional tolls of COVID-19.

While mental health resources were a hot-button topic, City College of New York senior Marcia Collier, who attended the town hall, said that in her experience, housing insecurity has been the biggest concern that students face. Before the pandemic 14% of CUNY undergraduate students were experiencing homelessness, according to a media advisory.

“I know a few students who are borderline homeless, they’re moving from place to place and there is no assistance at all with help,” Collier told WSN. “The only option you have is to stay in the dorms, which is only available for a certain amount of individuals and it’s extremely expensive.”

In addition to housing insecurity and limited access to mental health services, Hunter College senior Tanisha Williams raised concerns regarding access to food pantries for college students dealing with food insecurity in New York City.

“As campuses close access to food for many students is harder than ever especially as food pantries are closed or offer extremely limited hours,” Williams said before asking representatives what they can do to open up access to food pantries for college students. “Meanwhile, the state’s investment in food pantries has not increased since 2018 and very few college students enroll in food stamps.” 

In April, the city approved $25 million to be allocated toward emergency food providers.

Representatives Glick and Epstein agreed that the Grab-and-Go programs implemented by the city should have been based on college campuses. Glick also raised that food pantries should be open to all university students, regardless of which school they attend. This measure would have been especially useful for NYU students facing food insecurity, as the university does not have a food pantry.

“Students who have a school ID should be able to go to any campus,” Glick said. “The city has not put any of the Grab-and-Go on campuses which would have been helpful in those neighborhoods where the campuses are and I don’t quite understand why they didn’t do that.”

Paola Cruz, a Columbia University student, added to the conversation that university emergency funds have also proven difficult to access for students who have applied. She cited a friend whose application was denied.

“For some colleges the emergency funds have already existed, but the demand is very high as students and families lose work while potentially taking on new expenses like internet access or computers to make sure they can keep up with classes,” Cruz said at the event. “We also know that the federal government is sending money to New York’s colleges for emergency aid as a part of the CARES act. These emergency grants funded from the CARES act must address urgent needs students may be facing from housing to childcare to accessing food.”

However, Senator Robert Jackson emphasized that private universities with large endowments, like Columbia University or NYU, should be able to provide for students in need.

“As far as endowment, Columbia University has billions of dollars in endowment so they should be able to set aside X amount of dollars when it comes to cash for food, for housing,” Jackson said during the session. “Columbia — I don’t know if they’re doing that. They have a huge endowment to do that, whereas the City College comparatively does not.” 

While discussion centered around meeting fundamental health and safety needs, Williams also brought up concerns that money awarded to students through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program may be put in jeopardy by budget cuts or suffering GPAs due to the financial and emotional strains brought by COVID-19. Assemblymember Epstein assured students that they would work not only to protect TAP awards, but also to extend funding.

“If you can’t get your four years, your eight credits from the TAP, we need to ensure that students have additional time and additional semester of TAP not losing that opportunity,” Epstein said. 

But the question of budget cuts still hangs heavy in the minds of CUNY college administrators and students. Young Invincibles advertised a petition at the end of the call, demanding that Governor Cuomo not follow through on plans to slash education budgets in the coming months if a federal bailout does not appear.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 4th, 2020, e-print edition. Email Emily Mason at [email protected]

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