By Rainsford Stauffer
On Wednesday (March 11), University of Chicago’s independent student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, reported that the university would be following a pattern set by schools across the country, and canceling in-person classes in a preventive attempt to lessen the spread of the novel coronavirus before it swept campus. The school was also directing students to move out of their dorms, effective 11 days from the day the story broke.
But the paper also scooped the university itself, it turns out: Many students first saw the news from the school paper, before the university had a chance to make an announcement that reached all students. As students sought information reported by their peers, traffic crashed the newspaper’s website.
“It really felt like the world stopped,” Jahne Brown, the school’s student body president, told MTV News of finding out from the school’s newspaper. Because she has immunocompromised family members, the 22-year-old doesn’t want to go home, but fear over whether her on-campus jobs will continue makes her concerned she won’t be financially secure if she stays. “I’m honestly losing sleep,” she added. “This is not at all how I thought my senior year would go.”
“Some people, including me personally, weren’t happy with The Maroon ‘breaking’ the story before the official news was out because it caused campus hysteria and left students scrambling for answers about housing, finances, et cetera,” 21-year-old Kosarachi “Kosi” Achife, a University of Chicago Vice President, added. She thought the university was doing the best it could to communicate with students, given that things changed hour by hour.
Brown also pointed out that the school has not canceled finals even though undergraduates are being forced out of their dorms. “This is putting a lot of pressure on all of us to have to focus on taking care of each other while also finishing finals,” she said.
As the news plays out in real time, it becomes increasingly clear that many university contingency plans left something to be desired in terms of implementation and communication, likely because few could have anticipated a pandemic of this scale.
Julie Uranis, Vice President for Online and Strategic Initiatives at UPCE, told MTV News that there are no easy decisions when it comes to the continuity of operations at this scale, and institutions likely had to weigh campus risks alongside obligations to students, faculty, and staff. “With rapidly changing conditions, it puts college leaders in the unenviable position of making decisions that could have profound implications,” she explained, adding that colleges and universities are complex organizations that often serve as social, cultural, and economic hubs, so decisions to close a campus are not taken lightly.
“I think many institutions will refine their contingency planning in the near future and include faculty, staff, and students in that work,” she added. “I also believe faculty, staff, and students will hold institutions and themselves accountable for preparedness. I think we will all learn a great deal from this crisis.”
But while students wait for that preparation and infrastructure to kick in, they’re leaning on each other, crowdfunding on behalf of peers who can’t afford to get home, and organizing to ensure fellow students have information needed to make last-minute choices. Among a vast many other things, the mandates and evacuations unfolding across the country also illustrate the capacity of young people to take care of each other.
On Tuesday (March 10), Harvard University ordered that students evacuate dorms by the end of the week (March 16). Initially, the university was vague about how exactly they would assist students. Slowly, Harvard rolled out answers to questions: The college will provide $200 to ship or store your items (still, it’s worth noting, if you exceed $200 or don’t receive financial aid, the cost will be applied to your bill), and has stationed staff in dining halls to assist with travel booking.
The decision prompted a nationwide discussion — not just about the severity of the coronavirus, but about the underserved groups most likely to be impacted by schools deciding to upend living situations, class schedules, and income sources in the midst of a semester. (University of Chicago shared that there will be no housing fees for students leaving campus, and one dining hall will remain open.) Low-income students, first-generation students, and international students often depend on their universities for housing and stability, and an estimated 68,000 college students nationwide experience homelessness. Thousands of students rely on schools for work-study jobs, or hold off-campus jobs in the area and cannot afford to miss their shifts if they leave town. Other students lack the ability to pay for reliable, consistent WiFi necessary to completing online courses, and some don’t have the funds to purchase plane tickets or gas to vacate their dorms. Just as at-risk are LGBTQ+ students who left turbulent and intolerant homes, or young people whose home lives are marked by domestic violence. Even further, students often depend on universities for health insurance and medical care, which means they could fall through the cracks if they were to fall ill.
“This campus is [some students’] only source of hot meals and clean water, health care, access to internet, even a hot shower,” Vanessa Macias, a 21-year-old psychology and social behavior & social ecology student at University of California, Irvine, told MTV News. “To ask students to leave without an adequate plan to accommodate is to take away their only means of surviving.”
According to NPR, the college closures began in Washington state and have since affected over half a million students as of earlier this week; CNN’s running list of closing colleges and universities includes over 30 schools throughout the country. Often missing from national collegiate conversation, but equally consequential in terms of impact on students, are the community colleges that will cancel classes or shift to remote learning until the coronavirus risk subsides. And while many students understand the need to ensure social distancing, particularly with the aggressive nature of how illnesses spread on campuses, they have also voiced frustration that they couldn’t rely on their administrators for more specific guidance at such a critical time.
“Better communication in general would help greatly,” Hiatt Allen, a 22-year-old pursuing a dual-degree program for Master of Divinity and Master of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, told MTV News. “Basic ability to crisis communications should be expected.” He added that he believes the school had a negative track record of communicating changes to students, including being scooped by the school paper regarding significant changes to PhD programs in October 2019. (MTV News has reached out to the University of Chicago for comment.)
Other students across the country have expressed concern about the chaos of information and misinformation around them, including the whiplash of learning about dramatic changes only to have actual details trickle out slowly.
Macias said she has been receiving information via email, Twitter, and Instagram regarding the status of on-campus resources through students who work in these facilities. She is part of the Mental Health Commission on campus and has been rattled by the group’s mass cancelation of events and plans for the semester, including a conference that was set for May.
“The feeling of failure and loss is painted across so many faces, especially seniors like myself, whose upcoming commencement celebration of all their hard work will now most likely be a day of silence,” she said. She also works off-campus, but because her job involves working with elementary-school children, she’s concerned about being left without a way to pay for bills and food.
The first case of novel coronavirus to hit Orange County, where UCI is located, was confirmed in January. Yet her university delayed class cancelations and emergency plans until March 10, when there was word of a presumptive case on campus (though the student reportedly tested negative). Marcias said that finally prompted immediate implementation of remote teaching, including finals, and students being highly encouraged to move off-campus. (MTV News has reached out to the University of California Irvine for comment.)
Even though the school has since introduced a rapid response center, students are still worried. “Some students do not have a stable home to simply go back to if in the case students are forced off of on-campus housing. Some don’t even have cars,” Macias said, adding that she is worried about students with jobs, international students, those with disabilities, and what the transition to remote learning will look like on a practical level.
A similar situation occurred on West Virginia Wesleyan College’s campus, according to 20-year-old theater arts student Jakob Spruce. “Faculty members of our school have been telling us not to worry and the worst that would happen is that we would move to online classes,” he said. On March 12, students woke up to an email from the university’s president, announcing that all classes would be canceled beginning Friday (March 13). But faculty received the email at the same time, and some didn’t have plans set to transition to remote learning. As a result, online classes were delayed significantly.
“No one had expected this to happen here, even the faculty,” Spruce told MTV News. “Waking up to an email completely [stunned] everyone.”
In the face of such confusion, students across the country are also attempting to be proactive. They’ve taken it upon themselves to ensure access to information, and support each other even as some of their respective institutions struggle to convey what changes are occuring, and what the true impact on students they serve will be.
The First Generation Harvard Alumni created a crowdfunding page that’s raised over $50,000 to support first-generation and low-income Harvard students throughout this transition, and University of Chicago’s student-run Emergency Fund is working to provide grants to students that never have to be paid back. Brown, who founded the Fund, said it shows how even before this crisis, “students have been providing for each other and taking care of each other on campus.”
The school’s Student Government Vice President of Administration, Brittney Dorton, also told MTV News that the group made the decision to donate as much of their existing budget as possible to the Emergency Fund. The 23-year-old said the student government also bought up as many boxes as they could to reduce the burden on students who are suddenly moving out.
“It’s creating a huge amount of anxiety, and everyone is in a stage of collective mourning,” Dorton said. “We’ll be isolated from our support systems for the foreseeable future.”
A student at DePaul University, which announced this week they would move classes online, started a petition asking the university to automatically pass students and citing upheaval related to losing housing, internet access, and even health insurance as distractors from focusing on finals.
“It’s a housing crisis, it’s an insurance crisis, it’s a food crisis; they’re closing the dining halls. it’s a mental health crisis; I lost my therapist,” 21-year-old Genera Fields, the student who started the petition, told MTV News. She works as a research assistant and lost her job due to university closures. Because she’s a senior in the middle of her capstone, she also doubts she will be able to graduate in June as planned. Other DePaul students have set up an additional spreadsheet of housing resources. They’re volunteering their living rooms, air mattresses, and boxes to assist displaced students.
“We’re all very scared,” Fields said, pointing out how disorienting it is to be off your schedule. She was calling from a grocery store, trying to buy rice and stock up, when normally she would be in class.
The entire community has stepped up, Achife said. “Immediately after we got the news and recovered from the shock, students were offering housing, cars and physical labor for moving, pet sitting and house sitting, food and emotional support for one another,” she explained. “It’s truly amazing how we can come together as a community in times like this.”
And while students have not forgotten that navigating the logistics of housing, finances, unexpected travel, and university policy should not be entirely left up to them in the midst of crisis, they are proud of their collective resilience — and what they hope future students might learn, should a worst-case scenario strike again.
“Our plans to leave behind a legacy of student activism for others to build upon will be cut short,” Dorton added. “But we hope that we’ll be able to model that kind of compassionate leadership through our response to this situation, and that it will inspire those who come after us to lead in a way that puts the community first.”