Insider spoke to students at the University of Alabama, University of Michigan, and the University of Missouri on why they made the decision to leave their campuses shortly after moving into dorms.
The students had hoped for a traditional college experience but felt they were at risk while on campus.
The students pointed to campus parties, a lack of rules, and inadequate testing as to why they decided to head back home.
Editor's note: Some of the students who spoke to Insider for this article asked to go by their first names only in order to speak frankly.
Before Chloe even moved into her dorm room at the University of Alabama, she was already searching for a way out.
The freshman had heard rumors of "COVID parties" in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She was familiar with Alabama's hot and humid weather and figured it was unlikely everyone would wear masks. She knew having more than 38,000 students on campus in the middle of a pandemic was going to be a challenge.
Chloe was accepted into Alabama on a scholarship, and one stipulation was that she take in-person classes. Additionally, all freshmen are required to live on campus during their first year. The housing website does not outline any update to this rule for the 2020 school year, and the University of Alabama did not respond to Insider's request for comment on the housing requirements for incoming freshmen or its scholarship stipulations.
"It makes me feel like a prisoner," Chloe told Insider. "I feel like I'm imprisoned here, and I don't have a choice but to be here."
She showed up to campus, moved into her dorm room, and for a short while, everything was fine.
But within two days, she started noticing problems. She heard people partying in dorm rooms down the hall and watched groups gathering outside without masks. According to its COVID-19 dashboard, the University of Alabama has had 2,303 students test positive for the novel coronavirus since August 19.
"Within the first two days that I was here, I already was like, 'No, I need to go home as soon as possible,'" Chloe said.
As college campuses across the country reopen, students have unloaded boxes, unpacked suitcases, and gotten situated in their new homes — but some have quickly regretted their decision.
Insider spoke to three students from different schools on why they packed up their belongings and left.
Students arrived on campuses hopeful that the semester would be 'normal'
Logan Deal, a freshman at the University of Missouri, received emails from the college over the summer that, in his opinion, painted a picture that campus was going to be "normal."
"They were pushing that they were going to try to uphold their whole experience as much as possible," the 18-year-old told Insider. "They didn't really mention the other side of it: that it wasn't going to be anything near the college experience I had wanted."
Deal said everything was well organized when he moved into his dorm on August 17; people were social distancing, items were sanitized, and everyone was wearing masks. The experience gave him confidence that the semester could be normal.
"But I feel like that's where it stopped," he said. "The day after I moved in, from that point on, it felt like the upholding of the rules was going downhill."
Deal said he started noticing students without masks, gatherings outside, and group hangouts in nearby dorm rooms. Since August 19, the University of Missouri has confirmed 1,418 positive coronavirus cases among students.
Christian Basi, a spokesperson for the University of Missouri, told Insider the institution made clear that students would be responsible for following its rules.
"We have been very clear from the beginning that we were going to hold students accountable," he said. "We have been doing that since the first day they arrived on campus."
Dylan, a freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said his move-in experience didn't go as smoothly. When he moved into his dorm on August 24, he said the hallways were flooded with students and family members.
"I realized what I had gotten myself into," the freshman told Insider.
Like Chloe and Deal, Dylan said he saw similar, crowded events taking place on campus. Dylan has asthma, so he said he was worried about himself and other students on campus who are immunocompromised.
The students were spending the majority of their days inside their dorm room
Dylan wanted to spend his first semester of college joining clubs and making friends at the University of Michigan. But instead, he found himself rarely leaving his dorm.
"Living in the dorms this semester is a sorry excuse for the 'college experience,'" Dylan told Insider. He decided it didn't make sense to stay on campus.
Chloe moved into her dorm room and initially went to some in-person classes. Once she realized that the professors were allowing students to complete the classes fully online, she stopped going. Despite taking her classes online, Chloe said she is still technically registered for in-person classes and will get to keep her scholarship for the semester.
"My plan was and still is to isolate myself in my dorm constantly because I'm terrified of people," she said, adding that she'd only leave her room for her favorite class and to collect enough food from the dining halls to last her a few days.
She'd watch outside her dorm room, where she said strangers and friends would gather. A part of her was sad that she wasn't getting to have the traditional college experience, but the overwhelming feeling was frustration.
She said the final straw was when she left to take out trash and heard multiple parties happening in rooms across the building.
"A party school seemed fun until I realized that there's a pandemic going on," she said.
Deal said he watched similar parties springing up in places across the University of Missouri's campus. His first Friday night, he said he walked past a group of 20 students and only one person was wearing a mask.
However, Basi noted that the university has made it easy for students to report parties and gatherings through its reporting form.
"If we don't know about it and no one else saw it and no one else decided to report it to us, we certainly can't enforce anything that we didn't see," Basi said.
Deal started the semester going to in-person classes, but he felt that the professors were rushing through the lectures, and said he didn't see any benefit of going to class when it was also offered online.
"I felt like I was staying in my dorm more and more every day," he said.
The students felt the universities could have been better prepared
Dylan said many students were following the social-distancing guidelines and wearing masks while he was on campus, but he thinks the University of Michigan has an inadequate testing protocol.
The school has a testing and tracking program in place, but students are not required to opt in. Undergraduates who live on campus were required to test negative prior to their arrival on campus, and all students are also expected to use a daily symptom checker tool. The university did not respond to Insider's request for comment on its testing protocol.
According to its COVID-19 dashboard, 82 students at the University of Michigan have tested positive in the last two weeks.
Deal told Insider he didn't feel like the University of Missouri was acknowledging the problems on campus or addressing the situation in the emails he received.
"It kind of made Mizzou feel like a cash-grab school," he said.
Basi said that a majority of the campus is following social-distancing guidelines.
"I would argue that there hasn't been a lack of [rule following] on campus, and I would challenge anybody to come to campus and review it and see," he said.
Chloe said she also felt that the University of Alabama could address the situation better. She said she called campus police a few times when she spotted huge groups of students congregating. When officers arrived, she said she didn't see them talk to any of the students.
Some students will receive refunds, while others just wanted to 'get out'
The three students all moved back home with their families and acknowledged that they're grateful to have a place that they can learn and live in for the rest of the semester.
When Chloe decided she wanted to head home, she contacted her resident assistant to let her know she'd wouldn't be in her dorm for the next month or two. She said she didn't officially cancel her housing contract, so she'll pay for her dorm room for the entirety of the semester; however, she said paying for housing is worth keeping her scholarship that helps cover tuition.
Deal said he spent hours weighing the pros and cons before deciding to go home.
"There wasn't really a reason for me to stay in the dorms and pay the money," he said.
Deal said he moved out of his dorm at the University of Missouri on September 3 and submitted his cancellation form on September 14. He said he will get a prorated refund for his housing but will not get the $325 deposit fee back.
Basi told Insider that housing cancellations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and that the university "would be looking at it from a reasonable standpoint."
Dylan submitted his cancellation request for his dorm at the University of Michigan on September 14, and said he's waiting to see if it gets approved and how much his refund would be.
Students are hopeful that spring or fall 2021 will bring a return to a traditional college experience
"I can see exactly what this would be like if this wasn't going on, and it's the ideal experience," Chloe said of life on campus.
She hopes to move back to campus by the end of the semester, and said she's aiming for October, but is still assessing the situation.
Deal said he'll finish this semester's classes online from home, and he's still deciding what to do for the spring semester.
"The reason I came to Mizzou was that I want the college experience," he said. "I really do want to see that through."
The University of Michigan and the University of Alabama did not respond to Insider's requests for comment on the options available to students who want to cancel their housing, any fees associated with cancellations, how refunds are awarded, and the claims about on-campus partying.
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