How to Make the University Experience Work for Students in the Vulnerable Category

For many students, contracting the coronavirus could be life threatening. What steps can your institution take to protect these vulnerable students? 

With regards to the coronavirus, a person is considered vulnerable or high risk if contracting the coronavirus could result in them becoming seriously ill. 

According to Bupa, someone is categorized in this way if they have an underlying health condition, including chronic asthma, heart disease, neurological conditions, a weakened immune system, or are severely overweight.  

While the advice for these citizens is continuously evolving and is heavily dependent on the rate of infection in their country of residence, it’s generally understood that they should follow strict hygiene measures and avoid highrisk situations.  

The more often vulnerable individuals come into contact with others, particularly in situations where social distancing or hygiene measures have been neglected, the greater the likelihood of infection. 

During a spike in cases, a country is likely to advise their high-risk citizens to stay home and shield, avoiding contact with others altogether.  

However, in countries where the situation is somewhat stabilizing, universities are preparing to reopen their doors to varying degrees.  

While some students will welcome the prospect of spending time on campus alongside their online studies, visiting campus presents unique challenges to those who are considered high risk.  

While the role of a university is not to act as parent or guardian to its students, it does have a level of responsibility to protect them from harm.  

Many students who are considered vulnerable to the coronavirus have been raising concerns that their needs are being ignored by higher education institutions.   

The BBC recently reported that, in the UK, students feel there has been a “lack of clarity from universities about how they will protect students who had to shield during lockdown.” 

The report continued: “With just weeks before term begins, vulnerable students have said there has been little communication about what they can expect, in part, because universities themselves are grappling with an unprecedented situation.” 

There has been similar confusion among vulnerable students in the US, where some colleges are yet to share their plans on how these students will be able to experience the academic year safely.  

According to Nature, “in the absence of any national strategy for tackling the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities in the US are on their own when it comes to deciding whether and how to bring students back for the autumn term, which has already started for some institutions.” 

For college sophomore Cameron Lynch, who has Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and a form of muscular dystrophy, the lack of instruction around vulnerable students returning to college safely has been troubling.  

“It’s already a stressful time to be immunocompromised,” said Lynch. “Now, a good portion of able-bodied people are going back to the way life was, leaving us behind.” 

While no universal instruction has been given on how universities are to welcome high-risk students to university campuses safely, there are certainly some intuitive steps your institution should be taking to protect them.  


It’s clear from the feedback from students that many feel they have been left in the dark about how their time at university will look moving forward.  

No matter what stage your institution is at in its planning process, communicating with vulnerable students is vital in easing their anxiety around how they will stay safe in the approaching academic year.  

According tSharon Nachman, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York, it’s crucial to have a plan and to communicate this clearly with students and parents.  

Nachman says this plan should have a detailed guide on how the institution will deal with “hot-button topics,” such as when a person gets sick and how classes will be divided into in-person and remote.  

From this, vulnerable students will have the information they need to assess whether they feel comfortable attending campus at certain points of the year, or whether it’s best to stay home 

As every student will be vulnerable to varying degrees, universal plans for helping students return to university may not be suitable. 

Instead, individualized contact with each vulnerable student ahead of the start of term and throughout the year is necessary in order to develop a personalized strategy for the year. 

Prioritize remote learning 

It goes without saying that the most effective step in keeping vulnerable students safe during the coronavirus crisis is keeping them away from campus when the risk to them remains high.  

It’s therefore crucial that your institution prioritizes remote learning for vulnerable students, ensuring they have all the equipment they need and are trained in navigating any online platforms 

While students who are less vulnerable may have the option of visiting campus from time to time, high-risk students may never have this option, and so will need to be even more prepared for remote learning and studying 

Your institution may need to arrange for this student to have tailored help, such as arranging delivery of technology or library books 

Be flexible 

The coronavirus crisis is constantly evolving, which means that your institution will have to be flexible and adaptable when it comes to navigating the year ahead.  

High-risk students may have significant anxieties about returning to normal life, as well as additional complications to consider, such as potentially navigating the limited access to medical services. 

Equally, if a vulnerable student is working remotely from home and reports technical issues, it must be understood that accessing the help required to fix this may be a much greater challenge for those who cannot come into contact with others.  

It’s vital that your institution responds to unexpected situations like these with compassion and patience, allowing flexibility on deadlines where possible, and helping the student to find a way of overcoming these obstacles. 

With this in mind, establish regular contact with the student so that any help can be arranged quickly and study deadlines can be adapted to meet their needs.  

For more information on how higher education students are responding to the pandemic, please see our latest report, September 2020 and Beyond: Coronavirus Insights from Current and Prospective International Students

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