Student Housing Situation Amidst College’s Shift To Remote Learning

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the college has made drastic changes to students’ housing plans. At the outset of Spring Break, students’ residents halls remained open from Saturday March 7 to Sunday March 15. Five days into spring break, however, President Valerie Smith emailed the student body that the break would be extended through March 20 due to the worsening pandemic and required students who wished to remain at Swarthmore to complete a housing request form to explain why they must be on campus. President Valerie Smith’s follow-up email on March 11, “Important Changes Amid Global Coronavirus Epidemic,” announced the school’s first responses to the COVID-19 epidemic. 

“Students should either remain home or return home now through Sunday, April 5, if at all possible. Again, we seek to reduce the number of people on campus in the interest of the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff, and to slow any spread of the virus in the broader community,” wrote President Smith. 

She also announced in the email that the spring semester will be delayed and moved to an online format. 

Although some students were allowed to stay, such as international students and those whose family members who are immunocompromised, many were denied housing. Alex Kingsley ’20 initially returned home for break, but her mother who suffers from OCD and contamination anxiety felt extremely uncomfortable with Kingsley’s presence in the house. 

“I went back for spring break knowing that it was going to be hard, because my mother has really bad OCD and contamination anxiety. And what many people don’t know about OCD is that it’s [not] just about liking things clean, it can be really debilitating and hers has been for years. A pandemic for people with OCD is really, really bad…,” Kingsley said. “There’s a lot of articles that are circulating about this now, because lots of people with OCD are basically totally debilitated by the pandemic because it can be such a paralyzing fear,” Kingsley said. 

At home, Kingsley could not even be in the same room as her mother. After two days, her mother asked her to leave. Kingsley attempted to go back to Swarthmore. OSE, however, did not approve even after she went to speak with them in person when she arrived on campus.

“There’s really only two homes that I’ve ever known… my family and Swarthmore. And I got kicked out of one only to be denied by the other. That was really the hardest part of this whole thing — not just the practical insecurity [but also] this sense of like baselessness, and this sense of no longer having a home, of home just truly being denied,” Kingsley said. 

Kingsley’s partner, a Swarthmore student as well, was given permission to stay so he invited her to come live with him in NPPR. The two then posted on the Swarthmore Mutual Aid Spreadsheet, a Google Sheets form for students to offer and seek housing, that they still had room for more people. 

“We offered on the mutual aid spreadsheet to let people stay with us, because we have a ton of space for two people in one big apartment, not realizing that the school wouldn’t like that. Instead of giving him a warning or asking him to take it down, the school revoked his housing … they didn’t put any information in the email, they were just like, ‘Yeah, we saw you did this. You don’t have housing anymore.’ It was very curt and very mean.” Kingsley said. 

After a week of negotiating and a conversation with Kingsley’s parents, the school allowed her to stay. 

According to Kat Capossela ’21, president of Student Government Organization, student deans review requests for on-campus housing on an individual basis. 

“There is no set criteria for these decisions, and both international and domestic students could be accepted or rejected,” Capossela said. 

To assist students who did not get authorization to stay on campus, Nathaniel Ziv Stern ’20 created the Swarthmore Mutual Aid Spreadsheet after seeing a friend at Middlebury share something similar on Facebook. The sheet gradually grew in size and began to organize services beyond housing, such as transportation and storage aid. 

“I started it because a middle school friend of mine whom I haven’t spoken to in years, posted on Facebook [that they] were working on their mutual aid sheet and I read the beginning. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is really useful. I see that Swarthmore doesn’t have one,’” Stern said. 

From the outset, Stern wanted the sheet to provide students with support from sources that are not associated with the administration.

“My intention was to have this sheet supplement … administrative efforts so that if there were things that the administration decided not to do, then students and alumni, the community would be able to pick up the slack as it were,” said Stern.

    On March 12, Swat Housing sent an email informing the student body that, in addition to reducing occupancy in Swarthmore residential halls, the College will be prohibiting guests who are not Swarthmore students from entering campus and residential halls. 

    After President Smith announced that remote learning will extend through the end of the spring semester on March 17, Dean Tomoko Sakomura sent an email to students on campus explaining that the students’ initial approval to stay in dorms were based on old information and suggested that they were now all expected to leave Swarthmore. 

    “Our current expectation is that, if at all possible, students will leave campus,” she wrote.

    Soon after, Dean Sakomura sent a clarifying email. 

“I want to clarify that today’s announcement and my earlier message does not impact your ability to remain on campus,” she said. 

The next day, Jim Terhune, Dean of Students, emailed the students authorized to stay on campus that the administration will reassess their requests to stay on campus. As stated in his email, students who need to stay on campus past March 20 through March 25 will be able to do so as long as they inform the college. On the other hand, students who feel as though they have to stay on campus beyond March 25 will have to reapply for on-campus housing. 

In the email, Dean Terhune also elaborates on the students the College will prioritize for housing: international and other students who are unable to return home due to travel restrictions; students who might have a difficult time returning to campus in the fall due to visa limitations; students with medical conditions that prevent them from traveling safely at this time or who have concerns for their personal health and safety; and students who are contending with temporary obstacles to traveling home.

Ghazi Randhawa ’22 commented on the College’s indecisiveness. 

“The experience has been confusing because the college kept on changing policies and kept on sending emails. But I don’t really blame the college because it’s just a rapidly worrying situation … I’m kind of confused whether [the] College wants to take care of us or not. They’re doing a lot of good things for a lot of students, but at the same time they kicked off a lot of students in various situations,” Randhawa said. 

Randhawa himself was approved to stay as the airports in his home country, Pakistan, are currently closed. If he is unexpectedly forced to leave, however, Randhawa says he plans to use the mutual aid sheet to find housing.

Mai Miura ’23, who was initially given permission to stay on campus, was also required to reapply for housing. This time, however, she was not allowed to stay. Despite the short notice, Miura says that OSE and Swarthmore Housing were very helpful. 

“The OSE and the housing department were really supportive. So I got denied housing on Friday and I ended up leaving on Sunday. [Friday night] I contacted OSE that I needed help going back home, and I think they ended up staying up until 1 a.m. that night to help me. They asked me if there was any particular flight I was looking at and they helped me book it,” she said. 

Some students, however, were disappointed by how the college handled the situation. 

“I wish the school felt like they were more caring, because it’s felt like a home to me for four years so now this kind of felt like my home is turned off. And that was a really difficult feeling so that’s that’s the main thing, is that I wish there was more compassion going on with the schools, admin, but I’m also really proud of the student body, and probably the way that people have been treating each other and have come together to support each other,” Kingsley said. 

Despite restrictions on students’ presence on campus, the college has allowed Swarthmore residents to enter campus grounds. 

On March 19, Mayor Marty Spiegel sent a message to Swarthmore residents via the Swarthmore Town Center Facebook group regarding the students’ departure. 

“At the conclusion of spring break, students were told not to return to campus. However, there were still several hundred students who could not go home during the break … and the college felt it necessary to issue rather stringent restrictions … This included closing off the entire campus to all but authorized individuals. They are very aware of the community response to this closure and they are now in the process of trying to place more students off-campus…” Mayor Spiegel wrote. 

On March 22, he issued another statement via the group informing residents that the campus has reopened for visitors. It is unclear what the “community response” Mayor Spiegel specified in his initial email means, however, in a comment to The Phoenix, Mayor Spiegel clarified that his statement did not mean to imply that the college moved students off-campus to open up campus to borough residents. 

    “…[T]he college closed the campus to guests to safeguard the students who were still residing in dorms.  Their primary responsibility was to their students and I completely agree with their position. In no way was I ever under the impression that any students were being moved so that the community could use the campus grounds …” Mayor Spiegel wrote. 

According to Randhawa, as of April 19, there are 40 to 50 Swarthmore students on campus. They are approved to stay on campus up until the end of the spring semester.

This story is developing and The Phoenix plans on further covering topics related to the effect COVID-19 on the Swarthmore community. For more of The Phoenix’s coverage on the COVID-19 outbreak, click here.

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