Some colleges have already begun moving students into dorms for the fall semester, while many others that previously planned to bring students back have reversed that decision and will be online only. Another group has decided to offer dedensified dorm populations with other students living off campus, most of whom will be taught online. The varied approaches of dealing with fall semester housing reflect the respective difficulties colleges are facing amid the pandemic.
As CNBC's Jennifer Dickler notes in her article about the brave new world of college dorm life, "The traditional dorm experience was not made for social distancing." That goes for other COVID-19 safety precautions, too. The days of the "traditional dorm experience" may be over for the foreseeable future.
Colleges are struggling to accommodate their students within a framework that never anticipated the effects of a pandemic. Some schools have moved students off campus, acquiring private-room housing in hotels. These extraordinary efforts to bring students back while trying to observe detailed safety guidelines have placed a heavy burden on housing officials and may be the beginning of a new era, as Dickler reports:
"Most universities are trying to get out of the housing business," said Jeff Amengual, chief operating officer of DMG Investments. "They are land-locked and couldn't expand if they wanted to."
Housing Often Part of the Overall College Experience
Building new student housing facilities isn't a viable option for many, if not most, colleges and universities today. The "land-locked" aspect comes from their location, which physically doesn't permit site development for new dorms. On top of that is the main reason: economics.
With declining enrollment becoming a matter of increasing concern, along with the massive expenses of "rigging for coronavirus" — retrofitting classrooms for safety (plexiglass partitions, augmented sound systems, etc.), virus testing, revised communications infrastructure, etc. — colleges are in no position to make huge additional capital expenditures. Thus, as Amengual notes, the trend of alternate student housing may become a larger component of institutional operations. In years to come, it may become increasingly difficult to find a hotel room near a large university.
Pam Schreiber, University of Washington's executive director of housing and food services, observes that "Universities are in the business of educating and developing young scholars, and a big part of that is helping them grow and develop as a community member. Housing is aimed at that component of the experience."
Dorm life is a critical part of the traditional college experience, but the pandemic is driving harsh wedges between residential students, diminishing social interaction and friendship building. Schreiber seconds Amengual's opinion: "Housing operations, in general, have taken a significant financial hit. The reality is there will be less [sic] resources available to build new housing or renovate housing."
Some Dorms Expected to Be at Capacity
Certain schools, however, are forging ahead with new versions of business as usual: full-capacity dorms. Inside Higher Ed's Greta Anderson writes about some of those bold approaches:
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 …
… 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 …
Colleges that have instructed their residential students to "pack light" are clearly holding their collective breaths about the possible inevitability of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus that will require a rerun of this year's mid-March "pack up and get out" scenario. When I read about a school's intention to fill a dorm suite with its maximum of eight students, I want to hold my breath, too.
I'm not alone in my concern. A group of UNC faculty members started a petition targeting the UNC system president and Board of Governors, urging the move to all online classes. UNC system campuses are not the only ones planning for full-capacity residence halls, according to ACUHO-I's (Association of College and University Housing Officers - International) ongoing tracker of on-campus housing plans for the fall semester.
This is a helpful tool that includes answers to the following questions from many colleges and universities:
- What is your campus's typical total bed capacity?
- At what total capacity will you be operating in the next immediate term beginning August-December?
- What percentage of your fall total capacity will be allocated for isolation/quarantine spaces?
The tracker was developed for schools to submit their plans for reopening housing operations for Fall 2020 and subsequent terms in the midst of COVID-19. There is a searchable list of campuses that have provided information. A complete list of data (updated daily) is available here.
What does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have to say about dorm-living risks? Its college housing guidelines information is at odds with what some schools are doing. For example, stated under Institutions of Higher Education (IHE):
- Lowest Risk: Residence halls are closed, where feasible.
- More Risk: Residence halls are open at lower capacity and shared spaces are closed (e.g., kitchens, common areas).
- Highest Risk: Residence halls are open at full capacity including shared spaces (e.g., kitchens, common areas).
As if we needed to be reminded, the CDC offers a sobering assessment of how the coronavirus can infect others:
… COVID-19 is mostly spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough, or sneeze. It is thought that the virus may spread to hands from a contaminated surface and then to the nose or mouth, causing infection. Therefore, personal prevention practices (such as hand washing, staying home when sick) and environmental prevention practices (such as cleaning and disinfection) are important principles that are covered in this document. Fortunately, there are a number of actions IHE administrators can take to help lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread …
The simple, unfortunate reality is that some residential students are likely to contract COVID-19 while on campus. So how are colleges shielding themselves from liability, in light of their housing policies? One good example is the University of Iowa. It has included a clause in its massive, seven-page housing contract that requires students to acknowledge that the school "will not be liable for any public health threat to which a student or visitor may be exposed, including but not limited to the transmission of any infectious disease such as COVID-19." As the old saying goes, it pays to read the fine print.
Living on campus this fall can be risky, and as the sources cited above confirm, some students and their parents are worried. The key to living safely revolves around individual responsibility. I ask myself, "Do I think all college students will acknowledge and live by the required guidelines?" Honestly, I have to answer, "No they won't." Colleges don't think so, either. Thus the "two-suitcase and backpack" move-in limitation, a tacit hedge on the unlikely completion of a full fall semester. Dorm life, even under pandemic-imposed rules and regulations, presents too many variables to be controlled safely, in my view.
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