In response to the growing COVID-19 outbreak, UR asked its students to spend the rest of the semester off campus, preferably at home.
But senior Cam Tate had no home to go back to.
Tate’s parents, who travel frequently, have rented out the family home until June, and her only other family member — her grandmother — is battling stage 4 cancer.
Tate had reason to be hopeful. A March 12 email from Dean of the College of Arts, Science, and Engineering Jeffrey Runner said students could stay on campus if they faced one of three obstacles: travel restrictions, a home country with specific warning levels from the Center for Disease Control and US Department of State, or housing insecurity.
So Tate was surprised to learn that her request to remain on campus had been denied.
“I was just shocked that someone could read my [application] and say that I did not have reason enough to be given housing,” she said. “I physically don’t have a home that I can go live in, and they said that would be a reason that they would approve you to stay on campus.”
In the standardized email sent to Tate and other rejected students, the school maintained that its “top priority was the health and safety of our students.”
To Tate, and other students, it doesn’t exactly feel like it.
On March 13, senior Jimmy Yang submitted a petition — now totaling 930 student signatures — that pushed, among other things, to expand the criteria for who can remain on campus. It called for the inclusion of domestic students from regions hit harder by COVID-19, along with students from toxic or immunocompromised households, and students who didn’t leave Monroe County for spring break.
Yang said he was concerned about being exposed while traveling and infecting his family, since he would first have to travel through two airports. He returned home to North Dakota after his request to stay on campus was rejected. He said he has maintained distance from his family and routinely sterilizes things he touches.
University Health Service Director Ralph Manchester said the risk of staying on campus outweighs that of travelling home.
“You’re with the number of people on a plane or a bus for a few hours, but you’re with probably the same number of people in a residence hall for weeks,” he said.
Manchester said on Friday that it seemed as though UR would reach its goal of housing under 1000 students for the rest of the semester.
“The only way to get this under control is social distancing,” Manchester said. “And that’s much more easily accomplished if you’re living in a household with three or four other people […] than it is if you’re living in a building with 100 other people.”
Still, some argued that the decisions on who gets to stay didn’t consider the needs of many domestic students.
Senior Olivia Morton took to a popular UR Facebook meme page on March 16 to express her frustration after her request was rejected. Morton, who said she has an unsafe home environment, said UR administration missed factors other than COVID-19 that could harm students.
“They’re disregarding people going back to toxic home environments,” she said, and “people who would be going back to states where there are tons of cases of coronavirus.”
Runner said that though the phrase “precarious living situation” in the exemption request form was meant as a blanket term for homelessness or toxic living environments, UR still had to be strict about who was staying.
An immunocompromised family member alone was not sufficient reason to grant campus housing, Runner said.
“We’ve been really starting from Ralph Manchester’s position of we want the students to go home,” Runner said. “So this isn’t about I don’t want to go home, I’d rather not go home, home’s not very pleasant for me, we really want students to go home.”
Though Runner did not review all requests himself, two colleagues did, and he said he takes responsibility for the decisions. (Runner also made final decisions on all appeals to the initial decisions.)
“It’s really gut-wrenching to read students’ stories about their home life,” Runner said, “but I’m trying to come from a position of our goal is really to get people settled into other locations if possible.”
As housing decisions rolled in, word began spreading that international students were being prioritized over domestic students when it came to remaining on campus.
Runner told CT that UR decided to accept all international students who wanted to stay at the urging of Vice-Provost for Global Engagement Jane Gatewood.
Gatewood said she made the suggestion because of her prediction that soon most of the world would be a level 4 in the Department of State.
“We might be in a situation where we were forcing international students to move off campus who would then go home and not be able to return and complete their degrees,” Gatewood said, “or be otherwise stranded in the US without the right support.”
Students also mentioned financial hurdles that came with moving, coupled with the uncertainty about when they would receive housing reimbursements. Tate, who found a room to sublease in Rochester’s 19th Ward neighborhood, borrowed money from a friend to pay the initial deposit.
“I’m lucky to have friends that are able to loan me the money, but not that many college kids have that kind of money they can just loan out.”
Runner said that the Basic Needs Hub for students to request resources, and the eventual room and board reimbursement being sent to all students leaving campus factored into his decisions for appeals regarding finances.
Despite expressing dissatisfaction in some of UR’s housing decisions, students generally understood the bind administration was in.
“I can appreciate that it’s tough to make decisions about emergency situations,” said Morton, the senior who’d expressed her frustration on Facebook, “but if they make a decision and they’re getting a lot of feedback from students saying ‘What about us?,’ I think they need to actually say […] ‘here’s the plan for you guys, too.’”
“There’s a complicated mess and we’re all trying to figure out how to wade through it,” Runner said, “and all we can try to do is balance things so that the least bad is what we do.”