Colleges struggle to balance housing needs with quarantine rules
Less than a month ago, thousands of out-of-state Cornell students were planning early returns to campus so that they could ride out New York state’s mandatory two-week quarantine in university-provided housing before starting the fall semester.
But on July 30, after New York added 10 more states to its growing travel advisory list, the school said it could no longer offer quarantine accommodations.
Suddenly, students were scrambling to find their own temporary housing. For those who couldn’t, that left them with only one option: cancel on-campus plans entirely and spend the fall semester learning remotely.
Coordinating students’ return to campus during the pandemic is challenging anywhere, though especially for schools in states with stringent quarantine requirements.
President Trump last week revived his push for universities to reopen. But even with schools’ best efforts to follow state health guidelines, experts are doubtful about the effectiveness of those plans.
Crystal Watson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said some reopening plans are stronger than others, but all schools find themselves in a tough spot.
“Fundamentally, we have so much community transmission right now that it is going to be very hard to prevent outbreaks on college campuses,” she said.
Outbreaks are starting to become commonplace on college campuses. The University of Notre Dame and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill both moved classes online following spikes in COVID-19 cases among students. At Syracuse University, a group of students broke quarantine less than a week after arriving on campus.
At least 10 states require residents from certain states to quarantine on arrival, plus a slew of individual counties and cities like Chicago.
A review by The Hill of schools in those states found that universities are taking a wide range of approaches to deal with the quarantine orders: providing on-campus quarantine housing, attempting to carve out exemptions from state orders, or asking students to arrange — and pay for — their own accommodations.
Syracuse, for example, is charging first-year students $1,000 for room and board during their 14-day quarantine.
For upperclassmen, the university worked with local hotels to secure reduced rates for quarantine accommodations. Even with discounts, though, students are looking at $630 to $1,120 for a two-week hotel stay.
Cornell, however, opted not to put students up at local hotels in and around Ithaca, saying there weren’t enough rooms in the vicinity.
“We concluded that isolating individual students for 14 days in a hotel room up to two hours away from campus was an unacceptable and potentially unsafe way for students to start their semester,” Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff and vice president for student and campus life Ryan Lombardi wrote in a Cornell Sun op-ed in early August.
The Clarion Inn’s Ithaca and Cortland locations, two miles and 20 miles from campus, respectively, are housing groups of quarantining students at a discounted rate on their own accord — two weeks for about $950 in Ithaca and $790 in Cortland, around half their regular rates.
“We wanted to do what we could to help these students get back,” said Becky Darling, general manager of Ithaca properties for Inntel Hospitality Management including both Clarion Inn locations. The student occupancy also provides hotels with business during a challenging time for the industry, she added.
Cornell declined to comment for this article, but administrators said during a July 31 forum that they encourage those affected by the state quarantine order to start classes online from home, even though that can be challenging for students who don’t have reliable WiFi or a quiet place to study.
Students who can’t stay home for the semester and who can’t afford a two-week hotel stay aren’t entirely out of luck. They can apply for special permission to stay in dorms during quarantine.
Both Cornell and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa worked with their respective state governments to try to exempt students from the 14-day quarantine requirements.
Lombardi said during the July forum that Cornell hoped a “modified plan” would allow for shorter quarantine in exchange for “rigorous testing.” Ultimately, Cornell was “unsuccessful,” Lombardi said, prompting the decision to decline quarantine accommodations to most students.
University of Hawaiʻi had more success.
Like New York, Hawaii has one of the strictest quarantine orders in the nation, requiring all arriving passengers to quarantine for 14 days in a residence or hotel. Out-of-state students enrolled at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa would have been subject to the quarantine, but the university worked out an exemption with the state government.
“We began conversations in earnest with the governor and his team several months ago and I think what we arrived at was the best possible arrangement under the current conditions,” Provost Michael Bruno said.
Under a plan announced July 17, students who produce a negative result on a COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure or 48 hours of arrival are allowed to enter a “bubble” quarantine, and will be allowed to participate in certain university activities like classes and study groups.
The University of Hawaiʻi is not covering hotel costs — either for those students in traditional quarantine or those awaiting word on their bubble quarantine application.
Incoming freshman Ainsley Verkaik said she went through a traditional hotel quarantine, rather than the bubble quarantine, because she could not secure a test before leaving her home state of Florida, and because she and her family decided she would be safer doing a full 14-day quarantine.
However, Verkaik said many of her classmates made a different choice due to the high costs, especially for the traditional quarantine.
“That’s why I think a lot of students are choosing the modified quarantine — not because it’s safer, but because it’s the cheapest option,” she said.
Verkaik described a strict quarantine culture upon arrival. She said hotel staff notified the state while she was checking in, then deactivated her room key 15 minutes after she arrived at her room, leaving her with no choice but to stay inside.
Other states, and the universities within them, are relying primarily on self-compliance.
Syracuse is one of many schools requiring students to sign a pledge to follow coronavirus guidelines. Violators risk suspension or expulsion.
When a group of students broke quarantine in early August, the students “were immediately suspended and are going through the student judicial process now,” the university told The Hill.
Enforcing quarantines comes with its own legal challenges, according to Louisiana State University law professor Joy Blanchard, especially when the school does not provide on-campus accommodations.
Blanchard, who studies higher education law, said universities trying to enforce off-campus behavior calls to mind a now-outdated legal theory — in loco parentis — that previously saw universities as responsible for student behavior “in the place of a parent.”
“They would probably be wise not to try to revive in loco parentis because if we revive it for coronavirus, you’re now responsible for the off-campus frat party where someone gets drunk and falls or is sexually assaulted,” she said.
Karen McAndrew, an attorney who has worked extensively in higher education law in Vermont, said most college and university handbooks have language that allows an institution some level of jurisdiction off-campus — for example, broadly stating that the college can penalize “conduct that is in any way associated with the college, or has the potential to have an impact on college life.”
Even with maximum measures in place, behavioral experts say students likely won’t follow quarantine guidelines, especially without housing overseen by the university.
Arielle Kuperberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said school accommodations are a critical element in achieving compliance with state- or university-mandated quarantines.
“It’s about setting up an institutional context in which you have clear expectations, but make things as easy as possible for people to actually follow through,” said Kuperberg, who studies risk-taking behaviors in young adults.
She said universities failing to provide on-campus housing sets up financial and organizational barriers that reduce compliance.
Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg had a similar assessment, while noting that his pessimism wasn’t a criticism of teenagers, but a fact of human development.
“People who are the age group that we’re talking about — 18 to 24 — tend not to be very good at changing their behavior with respect to the long term consequences of it,” Steinberg said.
“I don’t think there’s anything that can be done [to ensure compliance], given the age group,” he added.
Rachel Scully contributed.