Colleges and universities across the country are taking precautionary measures to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, especially as spring break is happening or approaching.

Some schools are continuing in-person classes for the rest of the semester online. Other colleges instruct students to go home. The NCAA just announced it is cancelling the winter and spring championships.

These changes have college students thrown into a frenzy. Some are fortunate. Some are not. It’s affecting their education and their wallets. 

In a press conference on March 13, President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency and waived federal student loan interest "until further notice."

Students at Harvard University were pretty much evicted on March 10. It gave students five days to move out of their dorms. They have to be out on Sunday, March 15 by 5 p.m. Native students at Harvard were scrambling to find out how to get home. 

A few students at the University of Colorado in Boulder will be lucky. Lucille Contreras, Lipan Apache Band of Texas, at the university is offering students at the university who are from Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota a ride back. She has room for four. 

Some students are starting to share their Venmo, PayPal and Cash App links on social media to get help with flights or food. 

One of Harvard’s houses reached out to Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor at Brown University, for a “a desperate fundraising request.” She used to work for the house. “As imagined, the plan of sending students away with a week’s notice has hit low income students particularly hard.”

She continued: “The students can receive aid to purchase a plane ticket, but must come up with immediate funds for storage and other costs, and those who were working on campus are now unemployed and without income. That’s unacceptable, and embarrassing @Harvard. You have the largest endowment in the world. I’m happy to support the students with what I can, but that’s your job. The staff of the undergrad houses shouldn’t have to be fundraising on top of supporting students.”

But going home for many students isn’t easy or plausible.

For starters, students have to worry about how to get home. For Alyssa Charley, Dine, her mom and aunt missed work to drive to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, from Ganado, Arizona, because they didn’t want her to risk flying or being on public transportation. That’s a 13-hour-plus drive.

“Yeah it definitely was a lot of money. Luckily I was able to use my refund to help out,” Charley said in a message. “I know some other Stanford students who had to just fly back home, and there are still students on campus that I know of.” 

Stanford officials told KRON4 there is financial assistance available to travel home for students who receive financial aid. These "will be available where needed." 

If students need help to get home, the university said on their website: "We will increase Stanford’s scholarship by one half of the travel allowance that is already in your financial aid package."

Others students in other universities are financially strained and can’t go home. Naz, a Native student at the University of Texas in San Antonio, is in her dorm with other students. 

“Students dorms are closed as well as the dining hall. I don’t know any native students here but I’m one,” Naz wrote in a message. From what she sees, students are in their dorm rooms and “it was a big ruckus” on Tuesday. “Students are stressed."

The university said campus services like the dining hall will be open even during their spring break at reduced hours. However, Naz said the dining hall is closed. The university extended their spring break and moved classes online.

Charley said her physics class has to use Zoom, a virtual conference room, for class. And that’s a challenge on the Navajo Nation.

“Every night the class requires ‘full participation’ with survey questions, group work, and turning in an assignment in Canvas that you worked on with your group,” she wrote on Twitter. “Usually I rely on the university’s computers because my laptop doesn’t have a working camera so my professor thought I wasn’t participating. ON TOP OF THAT my internet kept disconnecting going from their survey, to Zoom, to the group session, and to the simulation we had to do.”

She couldn’t turn in the assignment. That leaves her planning for finals because Stanford told students they “need reliable internet access to download, print, scan, and upload the exam materials all within the allotted time to follow the honor code.”

She’s trying to stay optimistic as she notes “I’m one of the lucky Natives on the Rez who have internet access.”

For some students in Window Rock or Fort Defiance in Arizona, they have limited options for WiFi access. Students could go to the library in the Navajo Nation Museum, but in the last couple of days, the WiFi hasn’t been working. That leaves the options of McDonald’s, Quality Inn Restaurant, and the Starbucks in Basha’s grocery store.

Tribal colleges and universities

Tribal colleges and universities have a unique position when it comes to responding to COVID-19.

Twyla Baker, the president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, North Dakota, said online classes are already “super tough for us, well before any of this. “Students really don’t have a lot of connectivity on campus.” Baker is Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation.

“It's not just something that tribal colleges deal with. Although we probably are overrepresented but rural and small colleges definitely are going to have issues and in terms of going completely online,” she said over the phone. “We just don't have that luxury and I'm not sure if folks understand that there's a lot of digital deserts that we exist in.”

Since the college is very remote, she says, the only WiFi access students have is on campus.

“We're kind of like a digital hub for the community, too. People will come in to use their computers to have access to WiFi, not just students,” Baker said. “So it's an interesting issue to have to try to wrap your head around and try to be innovative with problem solving for something like that. I can't just I can't just say we're going off completely online. I just don't have that capability.”

Baker is also worried about students being asked to go home.

“Mainstream students really are going to struggle with having to be basically displaced for the remainder of a semester and having to respond to that really, super rapidly,” Baker said. “But [tribal college students] that could prove to be a really tough issue to address. Some of them, maybe they don't have a place to go back to. We’re just taking it day by day.”

The college had a response plan meeting yesterday morning. They are monitoring the situation right now and updating everyone on campus.

“I'm working with the Department of Health in North Dakota, and they're keeping us pretty well up to date in regards to the status in North Dakota, which is there's no cases just yet,” Baker said. “But that doesn't mean that it's not on its way.”

The Institute of American Indian Arts President Robert Martin, Cherokee, is one of the eight southwest TCU presidents who helped plan the annual American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Conference. The conference, which was to be held on March 21 to 24 in Albuquerque, was cancelled. The conference provided the opportunity for TCU students to compete, interact and learn from one another. Martin said there are typically 1,000 people who attend the conference.

“It was a tough decision,” Martin said. “I was disappointed to make the decision.” The cancellation came a day before New Mexico’s governor declared a state of emergency.

The consortium’s president and CEO Carrie Billy sent out the email to all TCU presidents on Tuesday.

“The 2020 AIHEC Student Conference, which had been scheduled for Albuquerque, NM on March 21-24, 2020, will not take place out of an abundance of caution and concern for Tribal College students and their families, TCU faculty and staff, the residents of New Mexico, and most important, our Tribal elders upon whom we depend,” Billy wrote in the email.

“Of course, the number of reported cases could – and likely will – change over the next two weeks,” the email reads. “This year, moving forward with the conference was particularly difficult due to the number of tribal governments that have announced travel bans and mandatory quarantines and the decision by several larger TCUs to stay home.”

However, they are looking to hold some of the activities online, such as the infamous knowledge bowl. The creative writing poetry competition will continue, but the art competition is in the air.

As for the school, since spring break is next week Martin said they are encouraging students to stay home. For state residents, they are encouraged to stay home. For out-of-state students, the housing will be open for them as well as the food cafe. There will be no buffet lines in the cafe.

School-sponsored travel is suspended for faculty and students. And classes will be online.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Martin said. “We need to be moving in that direction anyway. It’s going to build our capacity of online diversity and coursework. We realized challenges. We’re going to be working with our students, faculty and staff to address those challenges.”

Like Baker’s college, Diné College is in monitoring mode.

The college extended spring break for students by one week today. Various school-sponsored events have been cancelled and can be found on their website.

There are no confirmed cases on the Navajo Nation, said Diné College President Charles M. Roessel in a memo to staff, faculty and students today. But there are COVID-19 cases in Arizona and New Mexico.

“This doesn’t mean we should relax. In fact, now is the time to be more careful and diligent in ensuring our community remains safe and healthy,” Roessel wrote in the letter. Employees are now limited to work-related travel and travel requests already submitted will be re-evaluated.

“Like all other colleges and universities, Diné College is monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic on a daily basis and developing contingency plans. Last week, the college launched a webpage with preventative information about the coronavirus and the need for students and staff to stay up-to-date,” said George Joe, director of marketing and communications at Diné College. “A college task force of senior leaders and subject matter experts is meeting daily and focused on the college’s preparedness and response.”

They are following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and local, state, and federal health agencies.

“The Diné College task force is currently working on a contingency plan for students and staff, which includes taking classes online and working from home. Depending on the situation after Spring Break ends, students and faculty will be asked if they have traveled outside of the confines of the Navajo Nation borders,” Joe said. “The college stands ready to assist the Navajo Nation with impromptu emergency preparedness meetings.”

Oglala Lakota College cancelled their in-person classes starting March 11 for the remainder of the semester. Starting March 23, online instruction will start. 

The college is only allow administrative staff into the main building, library and bookstore. The historical center will be closed "indefinitely." 

The Lakota Language Academy classes during June 1 to June 12 are cancelled. Graduation is still on. 

Haskell Indian Nations University announced this morning that it will be extending spring break by one week, too.

“The resumption of classes will be delayed until March 23. We will provide updated information as necessary,” said the university’s Twitter.

Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska, also made the decision in "moving classes online for the remainder of the academic term and canceling its spring commencement. 

"Although there have been no confirmed cases of the virus in Alaska, we are taking preventive measures to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff, and communities throughout the state, to help slow the spread of the virus, and to ensure students are about to complete their courses and educational programs in a timely way,” said Dr. Bob Onders, president of the university. “By reducing the number of people on campus, we can help Alaska mitigate the risks of the virus.”

Other challenges

Besides traveling home and digital accessibility, many Native students are worried about their source of income. Some relied on their work-study job to get by.

Andrew Bracken, Métis, is a freshman at Michigan State University, which is an out-of-state university for him.

The school moved all the classes online until April 20 and “strongly suggest” all the students go home.

“I can’t afford the flight home, and I am nervous about going home and increasing the likelihood of my grandma getting sick since COVID-19 has spread in my home county,” Bracken said in a message. “Also, MSU said that no one will be getting any refunds. I have an on campus job and we’re not really sure if we’re gonna be working or not, and if people go home, it doesn’t look like they’ll be paid for the time they would usually work.”

Bracken was relying on the school’s powwow to make money from his beadwork. But the powwow was postponed. He was going to use the money to pay his past due tuition bill.

“My situation isn’t that bad, it’s just chaotic right now cause no one knows what’s going on,” he wrote. “It’s really wild out here like one of my closest friends wants to go home but she also works on campus and she texted one of her bosses about leaving and they said something about wanting employees who fully commit to the job.”

Bracken’s last note: “A lot of the lower income students here are gonna be hit the hardest by all this.”

Meghanlata Gupta at Yale University is in a similar boat as Bracken. Gupta traveled home for spring break.

She said the Association of Native Americans at Yale had to cancel a lot of their events. The Indigenous faculty group canceled the Yale Indian Papers project.

Yale moved their classes online when classes start again after spring break, Apr. 5, and are asking students to stay at home or return home if it’s possible.

“The campus is offering a place for people who can't travel home right now, and I think they may be helping out with flights home,” Gupta said.

She hasn’t heard anything about her campus jobs.

“I know that many of us are worried about losing financial assistance from our campus jobs,” she said in a message. “I have 4 student jobs on campus, and some of them I can do work for here at home (research). But for my job at the Native American Cultural Center, I'm unsure right now about what will happen.”

At Niagara University in New York, Katheryne Rose received an email from the university explaining they are extending spring break and will resume undergraduate classes on March 30.

“A lot of students are happy about it, but I’m stressed out over it,” Rose said in a message. “I have an internship once a week and I’m a work study student and that’s my only form of income and it’s bi-weekly. Not only am I missing out on my education but also a means of income.”

The university hasn't provided alternatives or solutions for her situation. Rose suspects that she will have to make up the hours after the break.

The sudden chaos has one student taking a “leave of absence” at Stanford University.

Sierra Edwards, Mille Lacs & Red Lake, is a junior. The university is on the quarter system. They cancelled the last week of winter classes and made all the finals a take-home exam. (Yes, while students are already struggling.)

Stanford notified students of cancelled or “will soon be cancelled” events next quarter. In addition, the spring quarter will start on time, but be online until further notice. “So classes could be on zoom for 2 weeks, 5 weeks, or even all quarter,” Edwards said in a message.

“With all these changes I’ve decided to take a leave of absence. I really struggle with depression, anxiety, and overall motivation, and I know I will not flourish during this online quarter,” she said. All of those events cancelled, many of which are hosted by people of color student groups, help her.

“And none of that will be there for me when it gets hard,” she said. She will be able to come back in the fall. “I’m just worried that this leave could affect my guaranteed years of housing (which is 4), as I am guaranteed a 5th year of study.”

The university has an FAQ page saying they will try to make sure this doesn’t affect her guaranteed year of housing. “I’ve been screwed over by the university many a times,” she said.

“Also, despite all these changes, the university hasn’t made any other changes or cancellations to finals (besides being take-home). After listening about our struggles to adapt, one of my professors pushed back the deadline for our final project, but the rest did not make any changes.”

Stanford undergraduate students can stay in the dorms with approval after going through the an online form. Campus services will be limited.

She also has to adapt to her home situation.

“My decision to take a leave means I have to pack my entire dorm and find a way to bring it home in the next 10 days,” she said. I’m also unsure of how things will be back home. I’m on nearly full financial aid here, so I don’t have to worry about monthly payments or meals when I’m on campus.”

“I’m really lucky because I have a home to return to and I also really love my family. But our house is tiny, I have 3 much younger siblings (who I’m afraid I might expose to coronavirus since the Bay Area is a hotspot), and I sleep on the couch in our living room, so it’s not ideal for the foreseeable future. So much is up in the air about my future and I still have to finish finals,” she wrote.

“Overall, I’m really lucky that I have choices, because a lot of my friends and other students do not. But there’s still so many changes happening in such a short time and it’s deeply impacting so many students across the country. I’m glad the university is taking precautions, but there’s been so many repercussions already.”

Shea Vassar, Cherokee, has graduation to worry about at Hunter College in New York. Her last class transitioned to online yesterday.

“The issue is my last class for me to graduate is a filmmaking production class and I got an email from my professor stating that discussions regarding how to continue the class remotely is being discussed,” Vassar said in a message. “I’m very scared I won’t be able to graduate which really sucks to say it plainly.”

As other students, she remains optimistic. “There’s still a chance that I will but this up in the air news is very hard to deal with,” she said.

One Blackfeet student who studies mortuary science and funeral science said they can’t get their lab hours now. And they need a certain amount to stay on track for graduation.

Medical students are also being impacted.

Third-year medical student Shelbie Shelder, Little River Band of Odawa Indians, at the University of Minnesota Medical School tweeted that her clinical rotations are cancelled.

“My school canceled clinical rotations until April 1st and possibly longer,” she said. Third year and fourth year are primarily focused on the patient care in the clinic.

“They basically just canceled classes and rotations and told us to stay home,” Shelder said.

There hasn’t been education for them on identifying COVID-19, she said. They school doesn’t want them involved or in the hospitals. They’re focusing on social distancing.

Shelder said, “This is going to really affect the education of medical students.”

Dr. Walter Hollow, president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, said two weeks ago that it is up to medical programs to recruit medical students for help in the clinics or health facilities.

Other schools impacted

As of March 12, all Seattle Public Schools will be closed through April 24, according to the district’s announcement on social media. The decision is a response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation.

Denise Juneau of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation and superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools gave the announcement on YouTube and their social platforms.

“This closure affects all public schools in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. I recognize the significant impact this will have on the entire community,” Juneau said. “Closing this district for six weeks is unprecedented. I understand the anxiety this may cause our students, especially our seniors who are focused on graduation.”

They are working with the state education agency to see what this will mean for the school year.

Down in Arizona, an elementary school district is closing its schools, too. 

And Arizona State University’s President Michael Crow announced the move to online instruction for at least the next two weeks.

All New Mexico public schools are cancelled for three weeks. 

Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska, cancelled its spring commencement and will be online for the rest of the semester.


U-Haul is offering college students 30 days of free self-storage who need to move due to COVID-19. 


San Juan College's Native American Center student staff workers started a spreadsheet called "Online Resources and Capabilities in Native Communities" for students. The sheet shows areas in different Native communities (on and off the reservation) of where internet service and technology is available. Contact Byron Tsabetsaye, director of the San Juan College Native American Center, if you would to add to the spreadsheet. Email Tsabetsaye at:  

Due to school closures, education companies are offering free subscriptions to their services. The services listed on the spreadsheet are for students of all ages and teachers. 

Spectrum, owned by Charter Communications, will offer free broadband and WiFi access to households with children in grades K-12 or in college for 60 days and up to 100 Mbps if there is no subscription. Call (844) 488-8395 to enroll. This service starts March 16. For new student households, the installation fee will be waived. At the end of the 60 days, if the customer doesn't cancel or change the service, regular pricing will go into effect.

Along with internet services, the New York Times reported that big internet providers "agreed not to terminate service for subscribers for the next 60 days if they are unable to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus." 

Georgetown University scholar Bryan Alexander compiled a list of colleges affected on a spreadsheet as well as higher education resources.

Inside Higher Ed is keeping live updates as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email:

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