In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, US colleges and universities are giving students at least a week's notice to pack up and leave campus until further notice.
Instead of in-person classes, courses will be held online.
The move has left students scrambling to make alternative housing plans, and raises questions about whether they'll have the resources to attend school online.
Students at a growing number of US schools have been told students to leave campus in the coming weeks and take their courses online — some with only a week's notice — as states with significant outbreaks declared a state of emergency in the past week. While the move by schools like Harvard University, Amherst College, and Smith College is meant to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, it presents a host of issues for students who don't have a place to go or a way to get online.
On Tuesday, Harvard told its more than 36,000 student body that they had about five days to vacate their dorm rooms. Students, required to be out of their on-campus housing by March 15, have to find new living accommodations for the foreseeable future, posing a challenge for those who don't readily have a place to go like low-income or international students.
"The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly," Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said in a statement released on Tuesday. "The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings."
Tomasz Wojtasik, a 21-year-old sophomore at Harvard, told Business Insider he was shocked by the news that he would have to leave campus.
"I barely kept from crying," Wojtasik said. His parents kicked Wojtasik out a year ago because he is gay. He told Insider he has no idea where he'll go while campus residence halls are closed.
"I've managed for the past summer and winter break, but now I have five days to figure out what I'm going to do," Wojtasik said.
According to Wojtasik, some students will likely be allowed to stay on campus if they meet "extenuating circumstances," such as being from a country designated category-3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or have "health or personal circumstances preventing them from leaving campus."
Harvard University did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment.
Advised to contact his student resident dean if he needed to remain on campus, Wojtasik reached out and filled out an application requesting to stay in his dorm. Until he is approved, Wojtasik will have to find another housing option as students, he said, have been "encouraged to get creative with finding friends and family to stay with."
"I'll have to try and find a friend to crash with essentially," he told Insider, pointing out the uncertainty around the duration of his stay. "We have no information on whether classes will remain remote for the rest of the semester. So do I try to find an apartment only to find out in a month that I have to come back? And if I have to get an apartment, how am I supposed to work to pay for it while still completing school work? And how do I find a job that quickly?"
For international students, who according to Harvard data make up 10,000 students from more than 155 countries, finding a place to go proves to be an even harder task.
"I CAN'T go home to Jamaica, especially on such short notice," one Harvard student wrote on Twitter, calling out the "the callous and irresponsible way that the school is handling this crisis."
For domestic students returning home, there's no guarantee they will have high-speed internet necessary to complete online coursework
Wojtasik said professors will use Zoom video conferencing software to hold virtual classes. But for students in some parts of the country, attending online classes might not be feasible.
"About to earn a Bachelor's degree using my phone because we don't have reliable, affordable internet in Levy County and UF is switching traditional classes to online courses," a student at the University of Florida tweeted Tuesday after their school directed faculty on Monday to begin teaching courses online, though it has not yet announced plans to ask students to leave campus.
Tim Marema, the editor of The Daily Yonder, an online publication focused on issues facing rural communities, noted that some people in the US don't have access to high-speed internet because it's not available where they live or they can't afford it.
"We've published numerous stories about families that have to go into town and park in the McDonald's parking lot to get their kid's homework done," Marema told Insider. "Students coming home for just Thanksgiving or Winter Break and not having enough access at home to be able to do research, submit information, or gather the things they need to keep up with coursework."
In 2018, a study conducted by Microsoft found 162.8 million people were not using the internet at broadband speeds, though not necessarily due to access issues. That year, Pew Research Center reported over half of rural Americans considered a lack of broadband access a "major problem."
Last year, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed spending $150 billion to expand broadband to rural communities as part of his campaign for president. And in February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its $20 Billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which aims to expand high-speed internet to rural communities over the next decade.
Till then, rural Americans have to drive to the nearest town to "find the right spot" where they can get on to high-speed internet by connecting to a public WiFi network, Marema said.
"There's a lot that isn't known about how little broadband is in rural areas," he added. "We do know it's less than metropolitan areas. The FCC's data is notoriously poor because it relies on internet service providers to self-report, and what they report is the maximum available speed. That doesn't mean the family can afford it. There are all sorts of issues with how little we know about what's actually available."
Marema claimed that since people from rural communities have lower attendance rates at four-year colleges and universities than their counterparts from cities, universities like Harvard could make decisions that don't consider the needs of students from these communities.
"There's some growth in awareness about rural students at universities but I wouldn't call it widespread yet," he said. "It's not an identifiable group. It's not a racial or ethnic group. You're not going to have an affinity group built around that identity the way you might have with legacy children who might be alumni kids or something like that."
The Harvard Crimson, the school's student newspaper, previously detailed the lack of geographic diversity and issues some rural students have faced when coming to the Cambridge, Massachusetts university.
"Universities are ground zero for good internet access, it's hard to remember there are many many places that don't have that kind of access and are going to have trouble with some of the high data use applications that might be used in distance learning," Marema added.
Stanford, Ohio State and the University of Washington are numbered among many major colleges and universities that have switched to remote courses. Although they haven't barred students from remaining on campus while classes are in session — online or otherwise — students have been suggested to stay home.
"To be clear, the move away from in-person instruction was made in an attempt to limit gatherings or large groups, per public health guidance, and help our region combat the spread of COVID-19," Victor Balta, director for media relations at the University of Washington, which last week announced it would move coursework online. "There is no specific perceived danger in coming to campus and, again, our campuses are not closed."