Students react to College’s closure of residence halls

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Following a March 19 announcement from College President Katherine Rowe, students were instructed to leave campus residences by March 25. COURTESY PHOTOS / WM.EDU

When the College of William and Mary announced Wednesday, March 11 that classes were temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 outbreak, students were told that they could continue residing on campus if they had extenuating circumstances preventing them from returning home. Eight days later in an message sent to students and staff, College President Katherine Rowe reversed course and ordered the closure of all residence halls, requiring all students depart to campus accommodations by Wednesday, March 25.

Rowe’s announcement evoked confusion and frustration for students who returned to campus following the College’s initial announcement. The College’s first statement on virus-related closures set April 3 as the target date for reconsidering interim protocols, which caused some of these students to assume that they had until early April to secure alternative lodging if the College ultimately closed residence halls.

The accelerated timeline has left some campus residents scrambling to find housing, a situation particularly severe among international students. Stella Lin ‘20, an international student from China, returned to campus after spring break and continued living in Bryan Hall to avoid jeopardizing her health by travelling home. When she heard of Rowe’s directive to close all dormitories within less than a week, she contacted the Dean of Students Office and requested an exception to the revised policy.

Her request was denied less than an hour later, and she received an email from Vice Dean for Student Success Mark Sikes encouraging her to detail her situation and explain why she could not follow her original evacuation plan; presumably so the College could assist in her search for temporary off-campus housing. Sunday, March 22, three days after Sikes’s email, Lin received word from the Reves Center for International Studies that she would be eligible for partial emergency funding to cover lodging, food, transportation and some additional expenses.

Lin plans to live in a local hotel until early April, and then plans to begin subletting a friend’s apartment. She noted that some students are still unsure of their housing plans since they had already formulated plans based on the College’s original April 3 timeframe, which Lin said demonstrates a flaw within the university’s COVID-19 response. Displaced students are moving into a few residential areas within Williamsburg, creating a small enclave of individuals doing the same things they would have done on campus.

“… Many of us are not going away. We are simply moving into subleased housing in a few residential areas in Williamsburg, and I don’t think it is really that different from living on campus in different buildings.”

“… Many of us are not going away,” Lin said in an email. “We are simply moving into subleased housing in a few residential areas in Williamsburg, and I don’t think it is really that different from living on campus in different buildings. I do understand that when staff come in, they are at risk, but we are definitely not expecting the school to take care of every single aspect.”

However, some students have been less fortunate in resolving housing issues since Rowe’s March 19 announcement. Ludwell Apartments resident Rebecca S. ‘20, who chose not to be identified with her last name due to privacy concerns, continued living on campus since she has an immunocompromised family member at home. She said she was stressed and upset by the College’s sudden decision to rescind housing options.

Rebecca filled out the same Dean of Students office form that Lin did following Rowe’s directive to close residence halls. While Lin heard from a Reves Center representative March 22 that detailed her eligibility for emergency funding, Rebecca has yet to receive any individualized correspondence from the university as of March 23.

“Nobody has reached out to me personally,” Rebecca said in an email. “The only emails I have received regarding this situation were those that were sent to the entire university.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Rebecca’s primary evacuation plan was to stay with a friend in Chesapeake, Va. However, Rebecca said that situation is no longer feasible because the house is ill-equipped for online classes and her friend’s family members suffer from asthma, an underlying condition particularly problematic for the novel virus.

Rebecca said the College’s premature closure demonstrates a lack of concern for students’ time and money. Since many temporary housing options will not have available leases until April 1, almost a week after the College’s intended March 25 deadline, Rebecca said she will be putting herself at risk by sleeping on a friend’s couch for the foreseeable future.

“March 25th is an arbitrary date that does not consider the well-being of students,” Rebecca said. “Not only is it in the middle of the first week of classes, it is also hard to find a place that will let you move in seven days before the first of the month.”

“March 25th is an arbitrary date that does not consider the well-being of students. Not only is it in the middle of the first week of classes, it is also hard to find a place that will let you move in SEVEN days before the first of the month.”

Some students have mobilized to lobby the College for additional financial support for campus residents during this time period. Zoe Le Menestrel ‘20 organized an online petition calling for the College to provide free temporary housing until April 3 for all students who had originally applied to stay on campus, or to extend emergency funding eligibility to domestic students as well as international ones.

Le Menestrel said the petition aims to pressure the College into providing more immediate assistance for vulnerable campus residents. Rowe’s current proposal calls for student rebates to be issued no later than April 10, which Le Menestrel indicated was too late for many individuals still in Williamsburg to use the funds effectively.

“Right now, students do not feel that the April 10 partial refund is sufficient or timely enough,” Le Menestrel said in an email.

Le Menestrel’s petition was accompanied by a letter issued by dozens of faculty members March 22, which sought to convince Rowe and College Provost Peggy Agouris to push back the March 25 closing date. Moments after faculty members circulated this petition, they received a response from the College administration reiterating the university’s inability to house students given intensifying COVID-19 spreading in Williamsburg and James City County.

Professor Anne Rasmussen signed the faculty petition but ultimately said she understood the College’s refusal to extend on campus housing options after learning more about the local health situation.

“One thing that seems clear here is that everyone is knitting this scarf row by row,” Rasmussen said in an email. “A decision is made and then comes another and another in reaction to various points made by those effected. It is always good to advocate for what you believe in and for those whose voice may not be heard as loudly in the mix.”