As colleges across California shuttered their campuses and sent most students home last week, one campus in the Bay Area is requiring its students to return — amid a pandemic — and clean out their dorm rooms.
On March 18, Evette Castillo Clark, St. Mary's College dean of students, emailed parents and students that the Moraga campus was closing and students needed return and get their dorm rooms cleaned out by April 14.
The day before, six Bay Area counties, including Contra Costa, where the college is located, announced a shelter-in-place order in response to the growing threat of the coronavirus. Health officials want people to maintain distance from everyone but their immediate families.
“We realize that most students are away from campus now and are concerned about the shelter-in-place order established for Contra Costa County and surrounding Bay Area counties,” wrote the dean. “We want to clarify that the order explicitly allows ‘essential travel to or from educational institutions for purposes of receiving materials for distance learning.’
“Please plan to move out at your earliest opportunity,” she wrote.
Some parents are livid.
“This is so reckless,” said Karen Lane, who lives in Littleton, Colo. Her daughter, Madison, returned home the day the six counties announced the shelter-in-place. She's reluctant to send her daughter back to campus.
“The whole point [of the order] is to keep us from being mobile. Does anybody really need their comforter or coffee mug that badly?” she said.
St. Mary’s College, a mission-style campus nestled in the rolling hills of the East Bay, follows a Lasallian Catholic educational philosophy. Roughly 3,600 students attend the liberal arts school, which claims notable alumni such as the actor Brian Doyle-Murray and Carolina Marquez, host of Cali Mornings, Cali 93.9 Los Angeles.
Incredulous and concerned about the college's order, Lane wrote to Clark expressing her alarm at the idea of sending her daughter to the Bay Area on an airplane while there's a growing global pandemic.
On March 24, the school's medical director, Rachel Snowden, responded to Lane by email. She explained that the college was not only "in constant communication" with county health officials about their plans, but that other Bay Area colleges, such as Stanford University and Santa Clara University, were following similar procedures.
She suggested Lane connect with local students or families to assist with moving items out of Madison's dorm room, if Lane wasn't comfortable sending her daughter back to clean.
"This might be a helpful option for your family to consider," wrote Snowden.
A county health spokesman told the Los Angeles Times he hadn't heard about the situation until he was contacted by the newspaper, on Tuesday. Officials from Stanford and Santa Clara University said their universities were not requiring students to return to campus to clean their rooms in the near-term.
"We have told undergraduate students they should not return to campus at this time due to the ongoing shelter-in-place order," said Ernest Miranda, a spokesman for Stanford.
Robin Reynolds, the associate vice president for auxiliary services at Santa Clara University, said her university has told students to return between May 1 and May 8 to clean out their dorm rooms.
However, "we know the situation is fluid, so that may change," she said.
A spokesman for St. Mary's said the request was in line with two travel exemptions in Contra Costa County's shelter-in-place: one that allows for essential travel and another for distance learning.
"Saint Mary's College of California is acting to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19, and working hard to adapt to changing circumstances in response to the impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," wrote Michael McAlpin, the college's director of media relations, in an email.
Asked if St Mary's request violated the order, Fischer, the Contra Costa County spokesman, declined to provide an opinion.
"We can't be in a position to adjudicate best practices, whether or not, in a particular case, it is good for certain students to follow, or not follow, the instructions," he said.
As to what will happen to Madison's belongings if she doesn't return, St. Mary's spokesman declined to comment.
But for Lane, it's pretty clear: "What's a thousand dollars worth of items when the choice comes down to my daughter's health, and that of others?"