As some universities are still hoping to reopen for in-person or blended classes, coronavirus cases continue to spike by the clusters, forcing schools to move to all-remote learning and send students home. It’s a trend that is far too familiar now, in what universities are seeing as a domino effect throughout the country. Now many colleges are scrambling to reconfigure a path forward in order to prevent major financial losses and make students whole.
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After only nine days of classes, a reported 135 cases of coronavirus forced the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to convert to online classes and mandate the closure of residential housing. Not long after, East Carolina University followed suit in response to a surge in cases and canceled residential housing contracts with the exemption of special circumstances like international students, student-athletes and other hardship cases.
The University of Southern California has also closed down residential housing due to orders from Los Angeles County, and the school is asking students to delay their return to campus until the permission is granted.
Other universities are even urging students to stay home rather than find housing on campus to take online classes. When Michigan State University decided to effectively terminate 2020-2021 housing contracts, the school asked students who planned to live in residence halls, totaling around 9,600, to continue their education from their permanent homes.
Whether returning home or relocating to alternative off-campus housing complexes, cohorts of students continue to evacuate campuses.
Since UNC-Ch made the announcement on Aug. 17, more than 4,250 students have cancelled their housing contracts, while nearly 1,566 have scheduled move-out appointments. According to a UNC-Ch spokesperson, housing contracts have declined over time, and main campus housing remains at 15.1% capacity. The school will continue to evaluate the financial impact.
Most universities will offer refunds or credits to students who are being booted from their on-campus housing accommodations.
While some schools are faced with financial liability in order to de-densify campuses, universities that have yet to start the semester are taking precautionary measures to mitigate cases and financial losses.
Virginia State University announced that it will switch to be fully online and close on-campus housing ahead of the semester, as stated in an email from school President Makola M. Abdullah, in order to prevent an abrupt shutdown.
Drexel University, which operates on a quarter system with undergraduate classes starting Sept. 21, has already moved to remote learning and closed off University housing with certain exceptions. In an email to the Drexel community, University President John Fry said that the school raised $256.4 million in the bond market on favorable terms and with strong investor appetite, which allowed the school to de-risk its portfolio.
The funds will also provide the university with the “flexibility to manage through the uncertainty of the next several years due to the pandemic,” he said.
Some colleges are looking to regional hotels to house a portion of students to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The University of Pittsburgh announced on July 21 that 25% of first-year students, or about 1,000, would be assigned to one of three nearby hotels to reduce density in its 11 residence halls. The university spent $22 million to lease hotel rooms to students, and the bids will provide exclusive housing to students with two occupants per room, equipped with 24-hour security and resident assistant and resident doctor staff to provide supervision and support.
One of the hotel brands in partnership with Pittsburgh, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, has a dozen deals with other universities across the country, with many still in the works, senior director of global communications of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Rob Myers, told FOX Business. Hilton Hotels has also stepped up to offer to house students and will also continue to work with dozens of different universities, according to a Hilton spokesperson.
As universities emerge as the new epicenters of coronavirus cases, financial implications are spreading to the respective cities as a result.
Most recently, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa announced a total of 531 cases among students, faculty and staff after the school officials called out an “unacceptable” rise in COVID-19 cases, putting the school in “serious jeopardy,” according to the Associated Press. The mayor has ordered all bars to close down for two weeks and prohibitions remain on gathering areas, including common areas of housing and residential communities.