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Coronavirus college closures leave students unsure about housing

As universities go online and dorms shut down, students scramble to find a place to stay

A trio of college students carrying cardboard boxes prepares to pack up their belonging to move out of their dorms at Harvard.
Anthony O’Neil, Christian Cruz and Annie Wang prepare to pack as Harvard University announced it will close down their campus early this semester, asking students to vacate by March 15th over the Coronavirus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

After Cornell University announced on Tuesday evening that the school, which has roughly 15,000 undergraduates, would transition to online instruction, and asked students to leave campus after spring break, students were in a state of confusion. “‘Frenzy’ is probably a good word,” says Manisha Munasinghe, a 26-year old computational biology graduate student.

Campus life across the country is quickly changing due to the coronavirus, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, with more than 1,080 confirmed cases in the U.S. As the list of institutions that have canceled in-person classes and moved to online instruction grows —including Harvard, University of Maryland, and Rice University in Houston—administrators are also closing dorms due to fears of the spreading coronavirus. Housing has suddenly become an immediate concern. What happens to students who depend on the dorms for a place to live? Where will they go if they do not have alternative options at hand, or family support nearby? Harvard alone has roughly 6,700 undergrads, 97 percent of whom live on campus all four years.

Cornell said students would be able to gain exceptions to stay in student housing via an official petition, but Munasinghe says nobody is sure what that means, or how it will work. International students are especially concerned about what it might cost to get back home.

“It’s especially disappointing for graduating students,” Munasinghe says. “Seniors are devastated they’ll miss out on their last semester with friends, and it’s unclear if graduation and commencement will even happen.”

“Every conversation he’s overheard today on campus is about this, and there’s lots of frustration and confusion,” says Jeff Pea, a 24-year old Cornell graduate student from California studying reproductive biology.

“Students have reacted with a mix of emotions,” says Joseph Anderson, president of Cornell’s Student assembly. “There has been fear from international students about their visa status. A lot of low-income students don’t know if they can afford flights home. LGBTQ students who aren’t accepted by their families are also extremely concerned. There is also a lot of confusion as to how some classes will continue virtually, as some classes are not conducive to a virtual setting and students worry about their academic success.”

These closures are only exacerbating the existing challenges many college students face around housing insecurity and homelessness. According to surveys and research from the Hope Center at Temple University, roughly 60 percent of community college students, and 48 percent of four-year college students, face housing insecurity—defined as an inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently—while 18 percent of community college students, and 14 percent of four-year college students, have been homeless at some point during college. Furthermore, many students depend on their colleges for food as well as employment.

Joe Murray, a dean at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, says that his school is currently working on a plan for what to do about coronavirus. Out-of-state students as well as international students present a particular challenge, because many can’t afford to quickly return to their home country. Traditionally, universities would keep housing open even during periods when there is no in-person classes being held, he says.

“All that could change if a student is diagnosed in the hall with the virus,” he says. “This is all new territory,” he says.

Since these campus closures are happening on or near spring break for many schools, the timing adds another challenge for students.

“All travel for FAU employees have now been restricted, regardless of location,” Murray says. “Even with no symptoms, they likely face a self-imposed 14 day isolation upon return. Returning spring break students are going to be a big concern. Some schools have already announced all-online classes for the remainder of the spring term so that students do not return to campus after spring travels.”

Some schools have made the transition to online instruction without deciding to close down their dorms. Northeastern University in Boston, which announced a transition to online classes on Wednesday, is currently not asking students to vacate residence halls.

”We are seeking to preserve the essence of a Northeastern education—including current co-op placements—while also taking prudent steps to reduce the risk of infection within our community,” President Joseph E. Aoun said in a statement.

To help universities navigate this tricky situation, the Hope Center recently released guidance for administrators and school leaders, which focuses on extending support services and highlighting how many students depend on schools for food, healthcare, and other essentials. The report suggests universities take such steps as sharing information about alternative food options and helping students apply for benefits; making sure campus health centers are open and can provide emergency coverage for screening and treatment (or guidance to where these services can be accessed); offering emergency aid to help pay bills or pay for travel home; and providing loaner laptops and free wi-fi hotspots so all students can keep up with online classes.

“Scarcity and stress reduce executive functioning,” the report notes. “Your students will have more difficulty planning and navigating bureaucracy during this time. Reduce their barriers to support whenever possible.”

In many cases, students, teachers, and community members, who are unsure of what’s happening in a rapidly shifting environment, have started their own networks to help student looking for a place to stay. Munasinghe, the Cornell student, set up a public Google Doc so graduate students (who tend to have their own off-campus housing) can offer support to undergrads. More than 40 people have volunteered everything from temporary housing to storage space and rides for those with homes nearby since Munasinghe shared the document this morning.

Figuring out how to deal with the nut-and-bolts of moving with the help of such a community-based effort (which was based on a similar shared-resource document organized by Harvard students) can help at a time when students are facing so much uncertainty.

“People are worrying about exemptions, or if they getting tuition refunded,” she says. “There’s a lot they’d like to see the university do, and it’s unclear what they’re going to do.”