‘They were panicking’: After dismissal from WU housing, students face logistical hurdles
When Washington University lecturer Michael McLaughlin walked into the Athletic Complex for a routine workout earlier this week, he knew the University announced that students had to move out of campus-owned housing by Sunday evening at 5 p.m. due to rising concerns about COVID-19 community transmission. However McLaughlin, a lecturer in accounting in the Olin School of Business, did not know the impact this announcement had on students.
After a conversation with a student at the check-in desk, McLaughlin decided to open up his Forsyth Boulevard home to students in need of a place to stay.
“They were panicking,” McLaughlin said.
Since the University’s announcement Wednesday, many students have been scrambling to find alternatives to campus housing. Others, unsure of when they will have an opportunity to reunite with their belongings, came back to campus against the University’s direction, returning to dorm rooms and apartments to retrieve textbooks and clothing.
McLaughlin likened the decision to shut down student housing to an eviction.
“It’s just taking a large group of very young people who have never been evicted or had anything like this happen before and then just saying, ‘Okay, you just need to find alternative arrangements,’” he said. “I can’t even imagine managing all that, either from the student or from the administrators’ side. It’s a nightmare.”
Students expressed dismay at the hasty fashion in which they were dismissed from University housing.
“Kicking students off campus in the middle of a break is hectic and confusing and is leaving more students angry than reassured that the University is doing everything in its power to figure out what to do next,” freshman Miri Goodman, president-elect of the class of 2023 Class Council, wrote in a statement to Student Life.
Senior Tomisin Akinyemi said that being forced out of her University-owned off-campus apartment has been a trying experience.
“That alone, uprooting my entire life and then having to be able to perform academically within a week, is really stressful for a lot of people, including myself,” Akinyemi said.
The University organized a form that students could fill out if “extenuating circumstances” prevented them from moving away from campus. According to Dean of Students Rob Wild, as of Friday evening, the University had granted extended housing to approximately 400 of the 700 students who had applied to stay on campus. Roughly 200 students were allowed to stay on campus until at least Tuesday as their applications remain under review, and 100 students’ applications were denied, Wild said.
“What the late stay process was intended to do was to protect our most vulnerable students from a really enormous challenge involving their ability to have food and shelter over the coming weeks with this impending national and global challenge,” Wild said.
The 400 students whose applications were accepted ranged from international students who were unable to go home due to travel restrictions to students with significant financial challenges or who do not have homes to return to, Wild explained. The group whose applications are still under review included all sorts of students, while the denials went mainly to students who had jobs in St. Louis or who could go home but wanted to remain on campus.
“We know that if you’ve asked to stay and you want to stay it is hard to hear ‘no,’ but we did the best we could,” Wild said.
In addition to the extended housing, the University also offered travel money to students and made additional resources available to Student Financial Services to provide to students so that they would not have additional financial stress.
Despite the measures Wild described, many students reported feeling like the University had not taken students’ various backgrounds and home situations into consideration when crafting its housing policy this week.
“I feel like there are a lot of details that especially the people that have enacted these policies have never really had to struggle with,” sophomore Liz Van Horn said. “For a lot of students, we aren’t exactly sure what is going on at home. To send students back home can be very difficult for some people because I know, talking to friends specifically, a lot of people just aren’t sure if they are welcome at home, which is definitely very difficult.”
Freshman Jamel Griffin agreed, observing that the University had not accounted for students who might not be able to establish a permanent address after leaving campus.
“I think that [the University] is trying to do their best. However, there are still a lot of holes in their plan,” he said. “To assume that ‘We’re going to ship your stuff to you’ is just really rather simple-minded.”
Along with undergraduate Maddie Alburtus and recent graduate Luka Cai, Van Horn helped organize a Google spreadsheet to connect students with whatever resources they needed. While Van Horn initially was only coordinating travel plans for students without cars or who lacked the money for an airplane ticket home, Albertus and Cai thought to include housing, food and employment tabs on the spreadsheet to help students in whatever ways possible. The students have also posted updates to the spreadsheet, helping their fellow students keep track of the changes to University policy.
According to Van Horn, the spreadsheet has adapted to help lessen the problems that students are facing.
“It’s definitely evolved a lot since we first created it, since we really didn’t have a lot of time to flesh it out because these are such extraordinary circumstances,” Van Horn said. “There is no perfect way to deal with everything that has been going on but we’ve been trying our best.”
McLaughlin saw the resources spreadsheet as a sort of silver lining through all of the chaos.
“You see in this panic some of the worst and dark sides of people…but you also see some of the best sides of humanity,” McLaughlin said. “My hat’s off to the students who created that. There’s a lot of students who are using this Google doc and I think it’s incredibly impressive and inspiring.”
The WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU) has also played a role in advocacy efforts over the past few days, developing a letter of demands for the University. The letter included requests that the University reimburse students’ travel expenses and costs associated with leaving campus, for example. WUGWU also established resource request and provide forms to connect students to their needs.
In addition to causing housing and travel troubles for some students, the timing of the announcement also prevented students from fully packing up their dorm rooms. The announcement came as many students were away from the University for spring break and unable to come back to collect essential medications, textbooks or clothing.
Senior Brenton Graham, who had left St. Louis over break, said that having sufficient clothing would have been a problem had he not ignored the University’s instruction to remain away from campus. When he heard about the dorm closure on Wednesday, Graham had just five sets of clothes in his suitcase, he said. Everything else he owned was in his room at school.
Throughout the week, the University had said it would work to ship items home to students. Still, since there were no details of that plan until an email late Friday afternoon, students scrambled to collect their belongings.
“It is not like I have backup stuff at home. Literally my entire life is in my room,” Graham said. “I’d be going home with nothing and would have to buy entirely new clothes or something until [the University] sends things through the retrieval request.”
Graham said that the differing access to resources has become apparent in terms of which students had come back to campus to retrieve their items.
“People who have more money, my friends who are more fortunate, were able to book a flight and come back immediately, get their stuff, organize their things and have it shipped to them or wherever they needed,” Graham said. “A number of my friends who are low-income, none of them have come back, because they simply cannot, unless they live close enough.”
Wild said that he was unsure of when students would be able to return to campus, though he said that it would be after April 30. Until then, the University will implement a three-phase plan to reunite students with their belongings. Wild said that he was “very, very confident” that the first phase, connecting students with essential items like medication and textbooks, would be completed by the resumption of classes March 23. The second phase will involve shipping items like clothing and bedding. The University will focus on storing other third category items.
According to Wild, because the situation with COVID-19 is changing so rapidly, the University is working on multiple contingency plans for storing students’ belongings.
“There’s so many different things you need to prepare for. But the one plan that we’re working on is the ability to store everybody’s belongings carefully catalogued and in a warehouse space either on campus or near campus so that students can come retrieve their belongings as soon as people are allowed to travel back,” Wild said.
Wild acknowledged student concerns about privacy, describing measures that the University has taken to ensure privacy and that student belongings safely arrive where they need to be. More than 100 University employees had volunteered to help in the shipping process.
“We’ve heard from lots of families who don’t want us to go through their rooms that it creates anxiety,” Wild said. “But the University is faced with this challenge that it is also creating anxiety not to have your belongings.”
The University will train staff on Monday morning to respect student privacy and make sure that items are moved carefully, Wild said. He said that University employees would always be in the room alongside professional movers.
Some students expressed concern that they would be punished if the University encountered illegal substances like alcohol or drugs in rooms while packing students’ items, but Wild emphasized that the University will not be pursuing the typical measures for minor violations.
“There’s a lot of anxiety for students right now. We don’t want to add to that anxiety,” Wild said. “The University has no intention of initiating conduct charges through this process for minor policy violations.”
Still, he emphasized, the University would not be shipping any alcohol or other illegal substances.
Wild maintained that the University would strive to communicate to students throughout the coming days and weeks.
“We’re going to try to be as reassuring as possible in this process,” he said.