‘Ground Zero’ for Spreading Coronavirus

Concerns are growing among students and faculty members about plans by some colleges to keep residence halls at full capacity this fall, which goes against the recommendations of public health agencies.

July 22, 2020
 
iStock.com/BSPollard
Old East Residence Hall, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, houses 67 students.

Students and faculty members from campuses within the University of North Carolina system are demanding an explanation for why residence halls will be occupied at full capacity in the fall despite a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that doing so would put on-campus housing at the “highest risk” of spreading coronavirus.

Lauren Whitehouse, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, signed up to live in an on-campus apartment with three other students before the pandemic intensified in March. Whitehouse said she will not be living in the apartment this fall; she considers the risk of living in a full-capacity dorm room to be too high. She was grouped with random roommates, who she said are “very social” and whom she’s recently seen on social media out at clubs and not adhering to public health guidelines.

“I’m really concerned about living with people who I think won’t follow restrictions,” said Whitehouse, who has one semester remaining before she graduates in December. “I know they’ll be going out when we come back as well. I know a lot of people in our age group are not taking it seriously.”

But after multiple requests to UNCW Housing and Residential Life officials to be let out of the housing contract, her request was denied because one of the two classes she is taking in the fall for her geoscience major meets occasionally in person for field study. The university allows students to cancel their housing contracts without penalty if all their classes are scheduled to be fully online in the fall, according to an FAQ page for students about UNCW’s reopening plan.

“I’m currently working very hard to figure out how I’m going to pay for an apartment that I’m not going to be living in, because I don’t feel safe living there,” Whitehouse said.

Plans for full-occupancy residence halls appear to be consistent among several universities within the UNC system.

A spokesperson for UNC Chapel Hill said in an email that its residence halls will have “normal capacity” this fall, with some rooms reserved for students who are immunocompromised and are approved to have a single-resident room. Some of the university’s residence halls include suites shared by up to eight students, according to a move-in guide for students and parents. The guide recommends students living in residence halls “pack light” in the event that they have to move rooms or are sent home during the fall semester.

“As the fall progresses, it is possible that residents will need to move rooms as housing is consolidated to meet potential health challenges,” the move-in guide states.

A North Carolina State University coronavirus information page said a “majority of residents on campus can expect to have a roommate … for Fall 2020” and “safety is a shared responsibility between all residential community members.”

It’s unclear whether the decision to open residence halls at full capacity is systemwide. Spokespeople for the UNC system did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and the system’s most recent statement provided on coronavirus was published in May.

North Carolina governor Roy Cooper’s most recent executive order that extends the state’s “safer at home” policy through Aug. 7 does not mention congregate living or college reopenings. A recent order does include a note about allowing spectators to attend college sports events as long as large gathering and social distancing policies are followed. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services guidance for colleges and universities defers to the governor's executive orders and CDC guidance. A spokesperson for the department said in an email that she’s “not aware of further guidance than what is on the website at this time.”

Though the universities’ plans said the fall reopening strategies follow the recommendations of public health experts and prioritize the health and safety of the campus, concerned faculty members pointed out that full-capacity dorm rooms contradict the CDC guidance for institutions of higher education.

The CDC’s webpage that outlines safety planning considerations for colleges and universities said if “residence halls are open at full capacity including shared spaces” such as kitchens and common areas, this puts on-campus housing at the “highest risk” of COVID-19 spread. Residence halls at “lower capacity” with closed shared spaces are at “more risk,” and “completely closed residence halls, where feasible” are “low risk,” according to the webpage.

Wendy Brenner, a professor of creative writing at UNCW who has worked at the university since 1997, said the idea of full-capacity dorms this fall “terrify me for students.” She noted that even with the possible exemption for students whose classes are entirely online, it’s been difficult to determine which classes will be held in person or remotely; a number of professors are continuing to request their courses be moved online, and many courses are listed incorrectly in the university’s system. Brenner said the situation has caused “mass confusion” among both faculty members and students who are trying to determine where they will be on Aug. 19, the first day of classes.

“If the CDC is saying don’t have dorms at normal capacity, don’t do it,” Brenner said. “They’re not going to say they’re doing it for the money, but I can’t think of another reason. This is not typical, or I wouldn’t have been here as long as I have. What’s happening right now feels really strange, scary and manipulative.”

Peter Groenendyk, UNCW's director of housing and residence life, said in a written statement that the university offered students the chance to request the single-occupancy rooms that the university already had available, and about 40 percent of students were assigned to these rooms as a result. He said students “have the option to change their course schedules to select 100 percent online courses” in order to get out of their housing contracts. He also noted that the on-campus living requirement for first-year students will be waived for students whose courses are all completely online. 

“UNCW was concerned about pushing more than a thousand residential students into the off-campus market by adopting the single-occupancy model,” Groenendyk said.

Brenner and 33 other current and former faculty members from 10 UNC campuses signed a letter and started a petition addressed to William Roper, the interim president of the system, the UNC Board of Governors, and other top system officials this month urging them to make online classes the default mode of instruction for all fall courses. The letter said “communities surrounding our campuses are put at risk by campus activities” and “it is unsafe for students and instructors to return to face-to-face instruction.”

The letter also mentions the housing plans, which “put our dormitories in the Center for Disease Control’s ‘highest risk’ category for spreading the virus.”

Some institutions outside North Carolina have received additional guidance to the CDC recommendations from their state and local public health authorities. Colleges in Oregon were instructed to limit dorms to two students per room, said Michael Griffel, housing director at the University of Oregon. The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Oregon Health Authority developed standards for college residences, including limiting the number of students living in one dorm room and rearranging common spaces to “maximize” physical distancing, according to an OHA guidance document.

Griffel said the university has been turning dorms that are currently triples to doubles and will have some single-occupancy rooms as well. Oregon is on a quarter system, with its fall quarter beginning on Sept. 29. The deadline to confirm on-campus housing was extended from May 1 to the end of July, he said. Despite having to reorganize its housing structure, the university is on track to fill its available residence hall spaces and meet the demand of the students who want to live on campus, but there will be some lost revenue compared to previous years when more space was available to house students on campus, Griffel said.

“It creates some challenge,” he said. “In addition to just having double and some single-occupancy rooms, we have some spaces that will be used for quarantine as well as isolation spaces that are reserved. I don’t know of any colleagues across the country that aren’t doing that.”

Griffel is also on the executive board of the Association of College and University Housing Officers -- International, or ACUHO-I, which has released its own “Future of Housing” considerations for continuing to operate on-campus residence halls. The report mentioned the CDC risk categories as well as recommendations from the American College Health Association, which says single-occupancy rooms are the best option for reducing coronavirus spread. The report also said even a 10 percent reduction of capacity means significant fiscal challenges.

“Most operating budgets are built around maintaining occupancy levels of 90 percent-plus capacity to maintain fiscal viability,” the report said. “Any significant reduction in capacity will adversely affect operations, including staffing.”

UNC system campuses are not the only ones planning for full-capacity residence halls, according to ACUHO-I’s ongoing tracker of on-campus housing plans for the fall semester. The association asked housing officials across the country to submit plans, including what their residential capacity will be, and at least 35 of 78 officials that had shared their plans as of July 21 said they would be “maintaining current design capacity,” according to the tracker.

Students and faculty members in the UNC system made note of the financial strain that limited housing could put on their universities, but they said they did not believe this was a reason not to reduce the capacity of living environments. Greear Webb, a rising sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill who has decided to back out of his on-campus living arrangement and learn online for the fall, said it’s “really concerning that UNC is willing to put student lives at stake, in terms of living together, for the sake of finances.”

“That is ground zero for being exposed to this virus,” Webb said of the college’s dorms, specifically those that house up to eight students in a suite.

“As cases continue to increase, it became apparent to me that coming back to campus and congregating with others on campus was not worth the risk for me, or the risk of giving it to a friend who may travel home.”

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