College students across the US are scrambling to move out of their dorms and find other places to live for the next few weeks as schools lock down campuses, cancel activities, and move learning to virtual classrooms in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
University of Dayton, a private school in Ohio, announced Tuesday that it was suspending all in-person classes, starting spring break three days early, and that housing would close to most of its 6,382 students living in university residences 24 hours later.
"Honestly, none of it really feels real," Brenna Lankford, a first-year student, told BuzzFeed News after she finished packing her room. "It happened so fast and has been very stressful."
The 18-year-old said her university sent her an email a little after 7 p.m. Tuesday warning that she needed to "evacuate immediately." By 7 p.m. the next evening, she said her key card to get into her residence hall had been shut off.
Over the summer, her parents moved to North Carolina and she had made plans to go home in a few days. But as soon as her school announced she had to leave campus, she had to scramble to book another flight.
The best and most affordable ticket she could find was taking off Friday morning, meaning she had to figure out a place to stay.
"It was very chaotic trying to get a flight and realize that I had to put as much as I could in two bags and not knowing how long I am going to be off campus," Lankford said.
Luckily, her school put her up in another first-year dorm complex until her flight. But she had to figure out her meals, since most of the dining halls shut down.
"I am really lucky to know people that live off campus in the area because they have helped me get food," she said.
Lankford took out student loans for both semesters, which she used to help pay for her dining and housing plans. She's not sure if she will get reimbursed.
Some of her other classmates who weren't able to afford to go home days early or make other arrangements quick enough are crashing with friends' families or booking hotels.
On Facebook, concerned parents peppered University of Dayton officials with questions about how they were supposed to help their children with only 24 hours notice and if the school would help reimburse for the unexpected costs incurred, as well as the hundreds of dollars spent toward food plans and housing.
"We live in Florida," one parent wrote. "Now we have to change her flight."
"Will we be getting refunded for the university housing /meal plans that can’t be used now?" another asked.
In its announcement, the university said international students would be permitted to stay on campus and that others with "special circumstances" could contact the housing department for more information.
When asked how many students were affected by the decision to swiftly close housing — and how many with special circumstances were permitted to stay — a spokesperson said officials "are working individually with students on their needs, but this is an evolving situation."
At Harvard, students were given five days to vacate their campus housing by the start of spring break Sunday. University president Larry Bacow said in a statement that the decision to essentially shut down campus life was "not made lightly."
"The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings," he said, adding that the campus will remain open "with appropriate measures to protect the health of the community."
Although a bulk of the elite, private university's students come from the top 1%, many are on scholarships or living off student loans and depend heavily on their school for food, jobs, and general well-being.
According to the advocacy group Primus, 20% of Harvard students are on full financial aid and 15% of undergrads are the first in their family to go to college. The organization represents 1,200 people who fall into both categories, known as "first-generation, low-income" (FGLI), students.
"While many students can handle unexpected costs, this sudden change in housing highlights the large disparity within our student population concerning students’ access to disposable wealth and the resources necessary to evacuate and move off-campus," Primus said in a statement. "Students are expected to continue courses through online platforms and to pay the remaining tuition costs as courses will continue in this virtual format. This poses additional constraints on students who may be lacking access to high-speed internet and other necessary academic resources."
Nicholas Wyville, an FGLI student, told the Harvard Crimson that making such a monumental decision so swiftly discounts the needs of people like him, who come from rural areas with spotty internet services and difficult living situations.
“I think that they forget that those are the same students who often come from home situations that are uncomfortable," he told the paper. “The only equalizer at Harvard is the fact that we all live together and have the same accommodation. We live together, we eat the same food, we have the same faculty resources."
In response, students and alumni have started crowdsourcing initiatives to help students who are low-income with housing or storing their belongings. Graduates from other schools, like MIT, are undertaking similar efforts.
On Thursday morning, students and faculty at MIT held a sit-in to protest their school's decision to bar students from campus, pointing out that in many cases, returning home would be unsafe. A group of organizers said in a Google Doc that the institution was refusing "to grant exceptions for people with valid concerns about COVID-19," as noted by the Daily Beast.
According to student protesters, who are collecting stories, MIT was denying requests to stay in campus housing from people from low-income families who could not support them, afraid of going home to a "hostile" living environment, worried about infecting elderly relatives, and concerned about returning to high-risk areas like Taiwan
For thousands of students studying abroad, having their universities suddenly shut down dorms, suspend programs, and move classes online has left them in a panicked state of uncertainty.
Montana State University called home about 15 students studying in Italy and ordered them not to come back to campus until after a 14-day self-quarantine. Carlos Palmer explained the "hectic" experience to KBZK getting out of Italy as the country closed down, dealing with airports and a 19-hour flight, and then coming home and trying to find a hotel in which to safely quarantine so he doesn't put his friends and family at risk.
“I feel like it is my courtesy and my obligation to explain to the hotel that I might have an infectious disease. Like, I can potentially be Patient Zero and I don’t want to be that person," he said.
After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday, the University of Texas immediately suspended all its study abroad programs and ordered students back home by March 30. Students then have to self-quarantine for 14 days, the school said in a statement.
Many schools raised their precautionary measures a level higher after President Trump banned people traveling to the US who have been in any of 26 European countries over the past two weeks.
Hours after Trump's address Wednesday night, Anna Tackett woke up to an email from University of Dayton officials ordering all students in Europe to return home. The sophomore is in the middle of her study abroad program at Maynooth University in Ireland and was stunned to read the stern message telling her and her peers to try to get a flight back to the US by Friday.
"The fights on Friday started at $1,900, giving less than 48 hours for their 'deadline,'" she said.
Tackett couldn't afford to spend nearly $2,000 on a flight and had to ask her parents to pitch in for one that left Monday morning, which cost $940. She also lost $300 in canceled flights and is pretty sure she lost her $3,000 deposit since her housing was cut short.
Her host school is letting students stay in their rooms as long as they need, for now, but everyone is in overdrive, trying to cram their belongings into suitcases, book and cancel travel, and get any type of information about what will happen to missed credits and courses.
"It was very confusing, stressful, disappointing," Tackett said. "I've had to cancel three trips that I already had booked. And on top of that, I'm not sure if the classes I've been taking here will actually transfer to my home institution."
The 19-year-old added that she has been messaging her school, but information has been sparse.
"They have said very little," she said. "All they have said is get home as soon as possible."