Wednesday, March 11, started out as a regular morning. I got to work at 4 a.m., got off at 10:30 a.m. and caught a train from downtown Washington, D.C. back uptown to Howard University, where I’m a senior, just in time for class. As it turned out, my first class was canceled and we were instructed to work remotely and complete the online quiz assigned to us. Cool.
Luckily, since all I had was the quiz, I could get in a quick nap before my second job at a local elementary school where I work as an after school teacher.
After the quiz, I took a quick shower and jumped in bed. Unbeknownst to me there would be no nap as my class’ group chats buzzed nonstop; students went back and forth about the unauthorized release of a document cancelling classes until April 6, starting after Spring Break (3/14/2020-3/22/2020). The document link quickly became unavailable as the Howard University Student Assembly’s twitter account deleted the post immediately. Eventually, it was posted officially and the university sent a mass email to all staff and students notifying them of the new change in academic scheduling due to the spread of COVID-19.
While this seems like great news for happy spring breakers, for me, a non-D.C. native, independent, working student, I was worried about where I would live during this time. Would students be allowed to stay in on-campus housing as we’re typically allowed to do during Spring Break or would we be evicted until the university re-opened? The official email sent to all students and staff reassured students who were unable to leave that during this time we would be allowed to stay amidst the crisis; we would just have to fill out a “Spring Break Census” google doc form detailing our reasons for staying. Cool. Seemed pretty easy. I completed it as soon as the link was sent to me.
Two days later, the university provost sent out an email stating “In a previous communication, we announced the transition to online and remote instruction following spring break from March 23, 2020 at least through April 6, 2020. Given the local, national and international developments that have occurred since that communication, we must anticipate that online and remote instruction will need to continue for the duration of the academic semester, and we should plan accordingly.”
It continued: “The Office of Residence Life & University Housing strongly encourages students to travel to their permanent addresses during this period, with exceptions regarding international students, and other students who are truly unable to return home. Regarding faculty and staff, we must similarly de-densify, as we remain open. We recognize that a limited number of students may be unable to go home, for a number of reasons, ranging from high incidence rates of COVID-19 in certain parts of the country to international student status. We will continue to accommodate students in these circumstances.”
However, within hours, and as I am playing tag with my elementary students on the playground, my phone vibrates with another email. This one from The Department of Public Safety saying, “We urge residents to make arrangements to leave campus for their permanent addresses by Wednesday, March 25 at noon, taking as many of their items as possible.”
“Now, we anticipate that students will need to remain off-campus through the rest of the semester.”
The email went on to direct students on how to move out effectively and not leave anything behind. A link to an extenuating circumstance form also circulated where residence life asked students to explain their conditions in detail and provide a time they would remove themselves from on-campus housing.
As a student with four jobs, three of which are based in D.C., I was forced to start looking for flights back home as the emails continued to come in urging students to leave and prepare to not return. Feeling extremely overwhelmed and fearful of being kicked out of my room for wanting to stay, I had to book the cheapest one-way flight home (South Florida) which was for Tuesday, March 17. I also had to book an additional seat on the flight to allow for all of my suitcases to fly with me so I would not have to revisit campus to bring everything else back at the end of the semester. With only 15 minutes left with my students I decided to let them have their happy Friday and not burden them with the news that their after school teacher of three years might be leaving forever. I spent the rest of my Friday in tears. Not only was I leaving my students but I was leaving my coworkers, commitments and personal goals for my senior year without a fair chance to accomplish them.
I started packing Saturday. As I packed, I had several moments where I needed a break. I had to remind myself to breathe, and push through the emotions. I was able to fit my life into four suitcases and five boxes, throwing away all my bedding, many shoes, clothes and kitchen supplies. I had to donate most of my favorite books and do away with some of my most prized belongings.
Sunday, in the frenzy of packing everything, washing dirty clothes, donating clothes that couldn’t fit in my suitcases along with miscellaneous things I didn’t have extra boxes to ship, I forgot my room key card and was charged $20. After the concierge gave me the form to complete for my lock out and reached out to the resident assistant on call, he talked about how confusing and frantic the university has been this week and how up in arms students have been because of it.
I was not the only student frustrated and forgetting key cards because we have so much to get done in so little time. He told me about how the night before, he was being told to not “make it a thing” if students did not turn in their key card and mail key to officially check out of their on campus housing, but allow them to do so ONLY if they asked to. He said it was explained to him as a cover in case students made claims that residence halls were making students leave against their will. In other words, in order to save their ass, Howard was urging us to leave permanently but not reinforcing that with their staff in order to protect themselves at the financial and emotional cost of students struggling to come to grips with what to do.
Monday afternoon, while moving I also heard a graduate resident assistant tell a student that Residence Life was not “kicking us out” but instead, “urging us to leave.” In actuality, though, Residence Life is kicking students out, voiding requests to stay and even if students voice concerns about going to their permanent residence, administration is still pushing for a date to have us out by. I am being told I have to leave a mildly coronavirus-infected District to fly home to a state where 155 cases of coronavirus have been reported; I live in the county with the highest number of reported cases.
Truth is, while the country is in chaos, students across the country are being asked to relocate back to their permanent addresses for the duration of the spring; these demands disproportionately affect low-income students like myself.
Because many students rely on campus housing for safety and healthy living conditions which may not be available at home, these students should be granted assistance by the Office of Residence Life to help plan next steps. This option should have been publicized through mass communication the day students were informed that after Spring Break they were to be off campus. In lieu of many corporations publishing new initiatives to help college students who may be displaced or need essential resources, Howard should have assembled a remote team to find and verify these opportunities for students and compile a list of resources sent to students.
If students are still on campus because of financial hardships, there should be financial assistance grants for students who can not afford the costs of travel home with their things. Students on campus with meal plans should also have access to healthy meal options delivered through dining services with clear hours of delivery.
Also, as new emails begin to flood, cancelling all things seniors were looking forward to, the university should strategize solutions or events to stand in place of cancelled activities/programs. Emails should also consist of news about reduced tuition prices now that the schools have totally transitioned to online learning, on campus housing refunds for those who have vacated and mental health advice for students who are struggling with all that is taking place so quickly.
However, none of these things have been implemented, leaving students in emotional duress and hysteria.
As a result, commencement has been cancelled, I have spent over $500 in boxes, shipping, travel and luggage to return home to a higher likelihood of COVID-19 contact with no money, no job, no promise of on-campus housing refund and a balance that still needs to be paid regardless of my emotional duress and exhaustion.
Who knew that the school of hard knocks was a real place?