March 16 — 11:29 am, 2020

Opinion: Colleges should rethink abrupt shutdowns

Many low-income and international students are left stranded – and perhaps less safe.

The last few weeks have been chaotic. Schools and offices have closed. Colleges are switching to online instruction and telling students to leave their dorms. There has been little transparency around the decisions abruptly passed down by governments and school administrators. Many students like me are worried about what is to come, but my situation is more privileged than some of my peers’. It is their stories I hope to tell.

Several universities, such as Harvard, Cornell, Ohio State, and Penn, have told students to evacuate their dorms. Some have told students to move out for the rest of the semester; others have set specific dates until which students must temporarily remain off-campus.

At Swarthmore College, students were asked to leave campus by Sunday, March 15. Spring break is extended for a week until March 20. Starting March 23, online instruction will replace in-person classes until April 3. On Monday, April 6, normal campus operations will resume “unless otherwise communicated.”

Students who need to remain on-campus until April 5 must apply to do so, and most requests have been denied. So far, those who are allowed to stay are mostly international students, including me. The rest of my classmates were encouraged to speak with deans and other administrators and to search for alternative options if denied college housing.

We do not know what lies behind the criteria used by school administrators to decide whether we can stay on campus, only that those in need may receive some travel reimbursement, according to Swarthmore’s page for COVID-19 updates. The Office for Student Engagement is offering to help students with travel arrangements. There is also a student emergency fund for low-income students, though students have said the fund provides limited resources and it takes a long time for reimbursement.

There has not been much communication from the school otherwise with regard to the financial strain and housing insecurity that students face. Chase Smith, a sophomore at Swarthmore, has spoken with their class dean but their request to remain on campus is still not approved. Smith is a first-generation, low-income LGBTQ+ student with no stable home to return to.

I understand the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of preventive measures. My extended family lives in Wuhan, and their lives have been changed by being in the epicenter of this outbreak. From a college administrator’s perspective, it makes sense to evacuate the dorms in the hopes of mitigating the spread of disease. However, from a vulnerable student’s perspective, being forced to leave campus and return home – if they have one – does more harm than good.

Evacuating students from dorms without offering them sufficient and concrete alternatives assumes that all students have a functional home to live in and the ability to attend online classes. This assumption is flawed. Without college housing, some students would be homeless. They may be orphaned, cut off by their family, or come from a toxic household.

Forcing these students out of college housing puts them at even greater risk of contracting or passing on COVID-19 if they have to look for affordable accommodations that are not as well-maintained as college dorms, not to mention the undue financial and emotional hardship they undergo from such a process.

Even if they are promised financial reimbursement from Swarthmore, they still have to deal with much uncertainty while school administrators figure out the details of reimbursement. Without some form of interim housing from Swarthmore, these students are left in the dark as they scramble to find a living space.

Other students can return to their homes, but those homes may not have the resources necessary to maintain an acceptable level of academic performance and personal well-being. Some students do not have stable internet access at home for taking online classes and completing their homework. Some students live in spaces with poor conditions, such as overcrowded apartments or asbestos-ridden houses, because their families cannot afford to move out. Low-income students and their families may not have enough financial resources to support more people staying at home, especially because a lot of these students depend on income from campus jobs.

These problems are not exclusive to Swarthmore. The Harvard Crimson published an article on how first-generation, low-income students are adversely affected by the sudden notice that they must leave their dorms in less than a week. Students from vulnerable backgrounds attend college all across the country, and many of them are caught up in the same situations.

Moreover, sending students home may put their families, friends, and relatives at risk. Many of us live with elderly parents, grandparents, or those with compromised immune systems. The virus’ two-week incubation period and the possibility of people being asymptomatic carriers means that some students could have already been infected unknowingly. Sending students home is detrimental to their loved ones who are already at risk of contracting serious symptoms of COVID-19.

Peter Chong, who is graduating from Swarthmore in May, said that he would be putting his parents and sick grandmother at risk if he returned home to New York, especially because their apartment is overcrowded. He also expressed concerns that his home environment is not conducive to remote learning and that he still would have to complete his graduation requirements there. Chong’s request to remain in his dorm has been denied by Swarthmore even though he has spoken to his class dean about his circumstances.

Similarly, Shelby Dolch, a Swarthmore junior, is worried about returning home to their immunocompromised mother in Montana, particularly because they have to travel through two international airports to get home. Dolch said that after speaking to various Swarthmore administrators several times, they have received some Visa gift cards for groceries and were offered a first aid kit, but are not allowed to remain in campus housing.

One can argue that keeping students on campus also facilitates the spread of disease, because student activity frequently occurs in shared spaces. This is particularly true for staff members, such as environmental or dining services personnel, who may be more frequently exposed to conditions harmful to their health.

However, I think that it is easier to contain the disease in a controllable campus environment if appropriate measures are taken, such as offering screening to susceptible staff and paid sick leave for those who self-quarantine, or putting immunocompromised students in a single building set aside for emergency housing. Students could also be involved in increasing overall campus health and sanitation. For instance, they could participate in dorm cleaning activities or attend separate meal times to reduce the number of students within close proximity in dining halls.

In the worst-case scenario, when quarantine is necessary, it is still easier to quarantine a campus instead of individual students who have gone home, dispersed across the country.

More students in need, whether domestic or international, should be allowed to stay on campus, and the rationale behind who is allowed to stay should be clearly communicated to those concerned. Students who are able to return to a healthy and functional home should still have easy access to campus support systems in these trying times. This can be done while still limiting large gatherings and social contact. I also want to see far greater transparency in how governments and school administrators decide on their course of action, rather than a vague statement about how their decisions were made after much consideration.

It is heartening to see student communities coming together to help those in need, but where are the policymakers and school administrators when we need them the most? I feel like the most helpful resources right now come from fellow students, not our governments or school administrators, who purportedly take care of our best interests.

Following others’ example, Swarthmore students have created a mutual aid spreadsheet to help one another search for housing, transportation, and other resources. There is also a Venmo fund to match requests for funds with donations.

We have yet to see this level of support from governments and school administrators. Students who have been approved for college housing have offered to let others into their dorms when necessary so that they may pick up essential materials. Swarthmore administrators told us that they will view this as a code of conduct violation and possibly penalize those who are just trying to help their peers in a time of need.

I acknowledge that COVID-19 poses an immense challenge. I am not writing this piece to attack anyone but to raise very real concerns that I have heard from my peers and friends. All I want is for those in charge to see us as people and not just tools to dispose of in what they think is an appropriate pandemic response. I hold on to the feeble bit of hope that governments and school administrators will empathize with us and roll out concrete policies that we can count on. 

Lijia Liu is a Swarthmore College senior and a former Notebook intern.


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