Health

As Coronavirus Shuts Down College Campuses, Students Scramble for Stability

"My parents found out that I'm gay, and they kicked me out,” said one Harvard student. “I've been relying, really, on the university for housing."
March 13, 2020, 6:54pm
Harvard campus
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Along with every single other institution in the entire world, U.S. colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Hundreds of colleges have moved classes to remote online instruction in order to lower the chances of transmission. Dozens have encouraged students not to return to campus following the end of spring break. A few, including Harvard, Cornell, the University of Dayton, and Princeton, have gone a step further, telling students they need to leave campus altogether.

Limiting the number of people living in close quarters during a still-mysterious and lethal outbreak is a seemingly appropriate public-health decision—while experts differ on how effective this step will be, erring on the side of caution makes sense—but students tell VICE that universities’ slapdash plans for getting people off campus created mass confusion and left vulnerable students in the lurch.

On Monday, Harvard told students in an email that the advice from experts was to stay put and avoid all international and non-essential domestic travel. A day later, Harvard sent an email telling students that they would have to be off campus by Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. This came as a shock to students and, according to Harvard sophomore Tomasz Wojtasik, at least some professors. Wojtaski said that in-person classes weren’t cancelled for the rest of the week and so students, in the thick of midterms and dealing with an impending eviction, went to class as usual.

“We showed up to class and professors were talking about how we would be doing [remote classes],” said Wojtasik. “My class is a sculpture class, for example, so it was about how we would be continuing to make our sculptures in our dorms. And we were like, ‘We have to leave our dorms.’”

According to university spokesperson Rachael Dane, all faculty and staff were notified of the announcement before students.

For Wojtasik, whose parents live in the Chicago suburbs, going home isn’t an option.

“Last February, my parents found out that I'm gay, and they kicked me out,” he told VICE. “So I've been relying, really, on the university for housing. For the summers I have to find my own place to stay.”

He spent last summer in a friend’s spare room in Chicago, but hadn’t planned to start his search for summer housing until May.

“I definitely think this could have been managed better. Harvard has a $41 billion endowment,” he said. “And they have a ginormous central administration that they keep expanding. So I don't understand why people who make six- or even seven-figure salaries can't come up with answers to questions that it took student groups half an hour the morning that they got the news to come up with and start looking for answers for.”

Wojtasik was speaking largely about the efforts of Primus, Harvard’s student group for first-generation and low-income students. Primus, which leapt into action earlier this week, has set up a Google form to connect students with alumni volunteers who can help with transportation, storage, and housing. But that’s not all; he said Priums set up a GoFundMe account to help cover students’ moving and storage costs, compiling a FAQ document about the campus shutdown, and setting up email templates for students to use to contact the financial aid office.

The university originally told students who didn’t have a home they could return to to talk to their resident deans, the Harvard staffers who oversee dorm life. Wojtasik talked to his resident dean, who said the university was encouraging students to “get creative” about finding family and friends to stay with and told him that a form created would be created to allow students to apply for exemptions to stay on campus. Wojtasik noted that Harvard did not send out the form to the student body; “students had to ask their resident deans how to access it.” He said the form closed on Wednesday at 9 a.m., leaving people whose travel plans were up in the air without recourse.

Wojtaski applied for the exemption and, on Thursday afternoon, found that it had been granted. According to Dane, "the university has been able to accommodate all requests from students to remain on campus post March 15."

Ivy League schools, for the most part, have been out in front of the COVID-19 response. The conference was the first to cancel their basketball tournaments and other schools, like Princeton and Cornell, have also decided that students should leave campus. Perhaps learning from Harvard’s example, these schools have approached the move differently.

Princeton announced on Wednesday night that all students would have to leave campus and stay home for the rest of the semester. In Princeton’s announcement, however, the school included information about which students could apply for an exemption.

You are permitted to remain living on campus until the semester ends only if you meet one or more of these criteria. You are:

A senior who must conduct lab or other Princeton-based research on campus that’s required for your senior thesis;

A student who faces housing insecurity (homelessness or a precarious living situation);

A student who faces financial insecurity;

A student previously certified “independent for the purposes of financial aid”;

An athlete still in competition and required to be on campus;

Currently residing in “family housing.”

An international student may fall into any of the categories above. Other criteria for international students include those:

Who have immigration, travel, and/or visa restrictions;

Whose home is in a country currently designed at a Warning Levels 2 & 3 and USDOS

Levels 3 & 4 for COVID-19;

Whose home is in an area with extremely limited internet connectivity.

Princeton freshman Auhjanae McGee told VICE that students saw what happened at Harvard and started a petition asking the university not to evict students in the same way. The petition brought up that not all students have access to permanent housing, internet connection, or the means to travel home spontaneously, and held up schools like Stanford and Yale as examples of institutions that handled the decision with care:

Most importantly, the Stanford administration 1.) pledged to provide financial aid for students who couldn’t afford to spontaneously travel home, and 2.) encourages, but doesn’t strictly enforce students to leave campus. Another peer institution Princeton can look to is Yale University, which will be compensating students for missed work-study during the inactivity of campus. All of these efforts work together to support international and first-generation, low-income students, as well students with elderly or immunocompromised members of their immediate family.

McGee said she thinks the petition helped shape the university’s response.

“Part of me thinks like had that petition not gone out our situation would have been more similar to Harvard,” she said. “I'd like to think that it wouldn't be, but looking at the criteria for students who are allowed to stay [...] I do believe, to some extent, they were responding to the petition.”

Princeton University spokesman Ben Chang directed VICE to comments from Dean Jill Dolan and W. Rochelle Calhoun, president of student life.

“We especially want to acknowledge that important leadership that Chitra Parikh, USG President, and Noah Apthorpe, GSG President, have shown in keeping us informed about student concerns,” said Chang.

For McGee, who is from Detroit, the situation is evolving. She says she’s not upset that the university is implementing the protocols they are, but she’s still not sure what she’s supposed to do. One consideration for her is the health of her family.

“My entire family has severe asthma and I'm just like, I wouldn't want to catch something at an airport and then bring it home to all of them,” she said. “I’m sure I would be fine if I got it, but my mom has been hospitalized so many times when I was growing up.”

On Thursday morning she told VICE she was planning to try to stay on campus. “Due to my job I have some money saved but it would be very, I guess, it would be a very difficult transition for me to just try to uproot myself when I wasn't expecting to,” she said. But by Thursday evening she said she thought she would be leaving.

“I’m still waiting for the administration to release information on storage and once they do I’ll make decisions accordingly,” she told VICE in a text. Chang told VICE that the process for registering students to stay on campus is still underway.

Of the schools that have required students to leave campus, Cornell is among those that has given students the most notice: a little over two weeks. On Tuesday evening, students received an email informing them that they’d be required to leave campus at the beginning of spring break on March 28 and will continue the rest of the semester from home. While having more notice buys students some time to figure out their accommodations, it doesn’t change the fact that, for many students, campus is home.

Cornell junior Tomás Reuning’s family lives in Miami. Even if he could find an affordable way to get from upstate New York to Florida, doing so would be a last resort, he said. Reuning is trans and while, unlike Wojtasik, he’s still allowed in his family’s home, they’re not supportive of his transition.

“When I told [my mom] what happened, she misgendered me and dead-named me the whole conversation,” Reuning said. “I kept correcting her, and then at one point I was like, ‘Mommy, this is why I can't go home.’”

Do you work at or attend a college or university? We'd love to hear from you about what's going on on campus. Contact the reporters at leila.ettachfini@vice.com or laura.wagner@vice.com, using a non-work device if you'd like to discuss something sensitive.

Cornell’s decision hasn’t only interrupted Reuning’s living situation, it’s likely to interrupt his financial stability and his transition. At the university, Reuning works both as an RA and on a campus food truck that he believes will close due to a lack of business when students go home. Reuning has been saving money from the food truck job for top surgery that is made more expensive by the fact that his insurance still considers the procedure elective.

As the RA at the Latino Living Center on campus, Reuning says that the stress of the situation has led to a sense of helplessness. “My residents are affected, and they're not just my residents, they're also my community,” he said.

The university has said that they will accommodate students who need to stay on campus. On Wednesday, Cornell sent out a survey for students in this category to fill out and make their case. Reuning filled out the survey immediately but has yet to hear back. He’s heard rumors that only students from level three countries will be allowed to stay, but he’s holding out hope.

Two states over, the University of Dayton took a very different approach. On Tuesday March 10 at 7:19 p.m., the university sent out an email alerting students that, like many other universities, Dayton would be closing campus housing as a coronavirus precaution. Unlike other universities, however, UD gave students until 6 p.m. the following day—less than 23 hours—to find new accommodations. The email clarified that international students would be allowed to stay and provided an email address for students to reach out to with questions.

The situation on campus escalated quickly. That night, over a thousand UD students gathered on a campus street before police showed up and fired pepper balls at them. Videos of the gathering quickly appeared online, and multiple social media reports the next morning said that the gathering was a riot or a student protest in response to the 23 hour campus eviction notice. But the university and multiple UD students confirmed to VICE that the gathering was not a riot or protest; it was a block party.

Shawn Robinson, associate director of news and communications at UD, described the event in an email to VICE:

Police gave verbal orders to disperse which were ignored. Police initially launched pepper balls, which contain powder with an irritant that disperses quickly, that were unsuccessful in reducing the crowd size. About 2:15 a.m., UD police and additional Dayton police again gave orders to disperse and moved to clear the street, which was effective in dispersing the crowd quickly. At least one person was reportedly injured by a thrown bottle.

UD sophomore Rachel Thielen was there with her roommates to say good-bye to friends that she might not see again until the fall. “It was just a celebration, like seeing everyone for the last time for a while,” she said. “People were excited because classes were canceled.” Thielen, who lives in student housing, was not personally worried about having to find new living arrangements because her parents live only a few minutes away from the university in Dayton.

Out-of-state students like Lucas Calderon, who is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, had a little more to figure out. Calderon decided to use the move as an opportunity to do some traveling, choosing to visit cousins in Kentucky before driving back home to Michigan. Asked if he saw any panic on campus about coronavirus itself, Calderon said decisively, “No, no one’s worried about the virus.”

“We've been told, because we're young and our immune systems are strong, if we do catch it to treat it like any other virus, like the flu, and just stay home,” said Thielen, who agreed that people didn’t seem too worried—at least not yet.

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