Two-year colleges worked quickly to help students get through the pandemic, pivoting to drive-through food banks and community partnerships.

Cerritos College was Sunny Saldana’s life before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The 29-year-old mother was at the two-year college’s campus in Norwalk, Calif., from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Her job was on campus, and she would study on campus.

“My rule that I made myself was to do school at school and not take it home with me,” Saldana said.

Once she got home in the evening, she had time to help her 9-year-old daughter with homework and spend time with her.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly the campus was closed.

“It was a shock to everyone,” she said. “I remember going into my class and my teacher was like, ‘I’m not gonna see you guys anymore.'”

It was hard for Saldana to balance parenting, going to college and working all from home. She quickly realized she had to become her daughter’s teacher in the spring, she said. Once summer rolled around, she lost her work-study job.

By the end of the spring semester, Saldana was discouraged. But support and aid from the college in the form of emergency grants, food donations and more are what kept her on track to graduate.

“Going through this made me appreciate my school so much more,” she said. “Being a community college, it feels more like a family.”

Community colleges tend to serve the most vulnerable student populations, such as low-income or first-generation students. They also serve more students of color, particularly Latinx students.

People of color — in particular Black and Latinx people — are more likely to contract the coronavirus and more likely to die from it, studies show, leaving these students more vulnerable than ever.

“It’s an equity issue,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

Research shows that public colleges spend, on average, $1,000 less per student of color annually than they do on white students, he said. This is partly because students of color are more likely to attend community colleges, which don’t get adequate support.

On top of the historic underfunding of community colleges, people of color are also facing greater impacts from the pandemic, Del Pilar said. Unemployment rates for people of color are higher and students of color have less access to the technology and internet necessary to learn remotely.

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