Hurricane Katrina Provides Lessons about Closing Campuses During the Coronavirus Crisis

tags: racism, higher education, inequality, Hurricane Katrina, colleges and universities

Andre Perry is a Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Perry’s academic writings have concentrated on race, structural inequality, and urban schools.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina forced months-long shutdowns on local college campuses. Being out of the office was difficult, but I had networks and funds that enabled me to evacuate the city safely. For many students, however, the decision to close colleges and universities—while perhaps unavoidable—compounded the disaster.

Today, as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of higher-education institutions are again closing their campuses. While this may help contain the spread of the coronavirus, vulnerable students are now being put at risk in an entirely different way.

Elite private institutions such as Harvard University and New York University, along with several public university systems, have responded to the threat by cancelling classes and switching to online instruction. Students on spring break or getting ready to leave for it have been told to stay away for the coming weeks; the highly contagious virus would certainly flourish in the close quarters of campus dormitories, classrooms, and recreational facilities.

With that in mind, closing campuses isn’t a surprising choice. However, it doesn’t necessarily move vulnerable people out of harm’s way. One of the most durable memories I have of Hurricane Katrina is my realization that many students forced to flee could not afford to return. Evacuating a city requires resources like a car, gas, food, money, and a place to go. Students in New Orleans needed resources to return to normalcy. But when racial wealth gaps are the norm, a stumble can become a fall.

Read entire article at Brookings Institution

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