‘An Eviction Notice’: Chaos After Colleges Tell Students to Stay Away

One after the other, like dominoes, colleges announced that because of coronavirus fears, they were suspending classes and asking students to pack up and go.

Credit...Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

The day after colleges across the country suspended classes over fears of the coronavirus, Abigail Lockhart-Calpito, a freshman from San Antonio, ran across the Harvard campus trying to get answers.

Her lectures were being replaced by online classes. Her residence hall was being cleared out. She, like thousands of others in her shoes, had a million questions: What was going to happen to her financial aid? Where would she stay? What about her credits?

The abrupt disruption of the semester caused widespread concern and a feeling of chaos on campuses across the country. Administrators saw spring break as a chance to reset the clock in the battle against the coronavirus. One after the other, like dominoes, they announced they were suspending classes and asking students to pack up and go.

Low-income students wondered whether they could afford to go home. International students had questions about their visas, which usually did not permit online learning. Graduate students worried about the effects on research projects years in the making.

Dance, theater and music students fretted that after months of rehearsals there would be no performances. Seniors were already mourning their commencement, assuming that it, too, would be canceled, and that the Class of 2020 might be together for the last time.

Some altruistically minded students worried about going home and perhaps unwittingly infecting their older and more vulnerable parents and grandparents should the virus already be present at their schools.

On Wednesday, the closures continued. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York declared that the state and city university systems would move to distance learning, as did the University of Pennsylvania, several California State campuses, the Claremont Colleges, Iowa State, Georgetown, Pepperdine, Villanova, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Washington University in St. Louis, among others.

Infectious disease specialists said that dormitories, with their communal bathrooms as well as dining halls with open buffets, are like cruise ships, with students squeezed together and facing increased risk of infection. Emptying them out, if only partially, is necessary, they said.

Even those on the way to college in the fall felt the impact on Wednesday, as the SAT exam scheduled for Saturday was canceled in 18 countries and at more than 120 U.S. schools. In many cases, no alternative locations or makeup dates were offered.

Ms. Lockhart-Calpito, 19, is on full financial aid, which includes tuition, room and board. Her parents are self-employed, and she had scraped together airfare home for spring break by working two part-time jobs, as a tutor and as an usher and ticket seller. She is going to stay with a family friend instead of her parents, but she worries about wearing out her welcome.

When she moved into her dorm, she enjoyed the luxury of having her own room, she said, and her meals at school were covered.

Now though, she has found that the university so welcoming to students like her had not thought through the consequences of its decisions about the virus for those without means. It felt, she said, “like an eviction notice.”

“Harvard expects us to go home,” she said on Wednesday. “But home for a lot of us is this campus.”

As she went from office to office, officials told her apologetically that they had found out about the orders to shut down normal life on campus at the same time that she had, and so had few answers. Private charities and individuals were responding with offers to provide temporary lodging and financial help, she said.

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Credit...Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

Tabitha Escalante, 18, a freshman from Ohio, said the rushed order to depart had already been costly for her and her family. She had originally planned to fly home for spring break on Thursday but had to cancel her flight, forfeiting its $250 value, when she got the notification on Tuesday morning. There was no way she would be able to find storage for all her things in two days. The new plan, she said, was for her mother to take time off from her work as a waitress to drive the 11 hours to Cambridge, Mass., to get her and her belongings.

“We’re living off her tips,” she said of her family. “It was a difficult decision, but honestly we weren’t really left with a choice.”

Harvard officials said they were swamped with requests for financial and logistical help and could not take time to talk in detail about the situation. They noted that Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts had declared a public health emergency on Tuesday, and said that the university had been forced to respond in kind. But they said that any students who were on financial aid and had a “demonstrated need” would be taken care of.

By midday Wednesday, as the pressure built, the university had put out written guidelines for students who receive financial aid, offering to help cover the costs of storing and shipping their belongings. The university said it was stationing staff in dining halls to help with travel booking, and that the amount of financial aid that students were receiving would determine how much of their travel costs Harvard would cover.

More than a thousand miles away, at Iowa State University, Alex Stein, a 19-year-old sophomore, was astonished and a little freaked out when the teachers and teaching assistants all wore gloves as they handed out a test on Tuesday night in his mechanics of fluids class. “They were scared of getting it while passing out the exams,” he said.

A friend sent him a video of a lecture in which the professor was wearing purple surgical gloves and spraying down the table with a bottle of bleach.

“I’m not scared of getting sick because I know it’s not going to kill me,” Mr. Stein, a civil engineering major, said. “But I’m scared that I might spread it to my grandparents and my parents, and they might have a tougher time of it.”

He is not looking forward to online classes because of his previous experience with virtual physics and calculus courses. They were easier than live classes, he said, and as a result, he did not learn as much.

The closures also presented challenges for foreign students enrolled at American universities on F visas. They are permitted to take only one course online per term to remain legally in the country; students on M visas for vocational training are normally not allowed to take any classes online.

“I do not exactly understand how this affects my visa status since we need to be enrolled in classes physically,” said Aditya Jain, 21, a senior at Northeastern University who is spending his semester at the school’s San Francisco branch, where most classes have moved online.

“My friends are definitely very anxious about the whole situation,” he said.

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Credit...Andrew Spear for The New York Times

Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday issued guidance, saying that it would be “flexible with temporary adaptations” for international students as universities adjust to the crisis.

Carissa Cutrell, an agency spokeswoman, said the goal was to ensure that students were “able to continue to make normal progress in a full course of study as required by federal regulations.”

In rare cases, some students will remain on campus even as the rest of their classmates are forced to evacuate. In its announcement on Wednesday that classes were being moved online and spring break extended by a week, the University of Pennsylvania said medical and nursing students would continue their clinical rotations.

Megan Lobo, 18, a freshman at New York University, had her first two online classes on Wednesday, and will soon be moving home to Leonia, N.J. Her two-and-a-half-hour music class, she said, was not conducive to online learning. They used Zoom, the video application.

“A lot of the relationships that you form in college are just kind of being around each other,” she said. “Especially for music — meeting people and networking. A lot of people I’ve met in the hallway or in class. Losing those small things can be a setback.”

Juan Diego Jaramillo, a senior at Columbia, was bracing for his long-awaited commencement to be canceled because of the danger that the virus would spread through the assembled families. “We’d rather they just pull the Band-Aid off” and deliver the bad news now, he said.

Spring break starts next week for Columbia students, and in the meantime, the campus feels surreal, Mr. Jaramillo, 22, said. “Monday was a beautiful day and class was canceled because of the virus,” he said. “But the whole quad was full, as full as you’d expect on a spring concert weekend. Everybody was out and enjoying the day off.”

Reporting was contributed by Kate Taylor, Miriam Jordan, Vanessa Swales and Britton O’Daly.