OGDEN — Han Johnson, a sophomore from Ogden who was living in campus housing at Weber State University, learned from an email sent Monday that she would need to find new housing — if possible — within the next two days.
A statement to students on the Weber State Housing webpage explains that the university “is implementing more stringent guidelines for campus housing” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“If you have a housing alternative,” the statement reads, “please plan to check out of your room or apartment by Wednesday, March 25.”
Johnson, along with other students, said she learned of this deadline on Monday. She described the last two days as “really, really stressful.”
As a formerly homeless youth, facing potential homelessness again is an overwhelming prospect for Johnson.
“I am absolutely terrified of being homeless again,” she said.
She thought going through the process of appealing to stay in her dorm would be even more of a hassle than finding another living situation, and the outcome would still be uncertain, so she didn’t fill out the university’s online “request to stay” form. She also didn’t reach out to any housing officials personally, she said.
“I reached out to some friends, and right now I’m couch surfing,” she said, “which is still homelessness.”
Johnson is involved with national efforts to address youth homelessness. After seeing that students across the country were being asked to leave their dorms, she tweeted on March 12 that she was afraid it would happen to her, too, not expecting that she’d be asked to leave in a couple of weeks.
“As a youth experiencing housing insecurity, I’m absolutely terrified of my university shutting down and closing the dorms,” she said in the tweet. “If this happens, dozens of students, myself included, will have no where to go. We have to care for ALL students during this crisis.”
The same day Johnson tweeted about her worries, Weber State announced that classes would be canceled from March 13-17. The university would use this time to transition all classes online and begin classes again on Wednesday, March 18.
The experience has been such an upheaval that Johnson dropped all her classes except one.
Johnson is not as comfortable with online courses, she said, and it was too much to find new housing and adjust to online courses at the same time.
'Wasn’t made lightly'
The decision to give students a deadline for moving out of campus housing was made by the Weber State COVID-19 Task Force, which is composed of members who represent all aspects of the university, said Allison Hess, the university’s spokesperson.
And it wasn’t made lightly, Hess said.
“This has just been a rapidly evolving situation,” she said.
“Students who do not have an alternative, safe place to be will be welcomed to continue living in residence halls,” Hess said.
Connie Frazier, the university’s director of housing and residence life, serves on the task force. She said students were told to move if they could, or fill out the form requesting to stay.
Students have been encouraged to think about what could happen if they stay, like potentially being quarantined in their dorms, Frazier said.
“We’ve been trying to sort of nudge them in favor of ‘If you can go home, you probably should, you need to go home. If you can’t, we’ll keep you,’” she said. “We weren’t getting a lot of voluntary compliance. ... I don’t think there was a sense of urgency for a lot of them.”
Students were continuing to gather in groups, Frazier said, and many weren’t complying with social distancing.
“Because they feel safe and they feel comfortable here, which is great,” she said, “except ... that’s not really helpful in this situation.”
So the task force decided to give students a deadline to move to another location if they could, or fill out the request to stay while getting their plans in order. Frazier needed a count to arrange staffing and food, she said.
About 400 students, or 50% of students, are still living in on-campus housing, after indicating that they needed to stay, she said.
Frazier said that potential student hardship was carefully considered.
“We know we have students who have challenges, who don’t have homes that welcome them, who come out of situations that are violent or not welcoming or tolerant,” Frazier said.
“We know that there are people that are far far from home, other countries,” she continued. “We’ve really been trying to balance that and ... offer safe haven, but there’s a lot of pressure on the other side in terms of having large groups of people living close together like they do in residence-hall and apartment housing.”
In terms of the short notice, Frazier said she thinks some students may not have read the entire message, and she and her staff are still reaching out to students individually who have not replied.
There was more flexibility than some realized. She said students are still living in the dorms who will be going home over the next couple of weeks.
Johnson didn’t read the message that way.
“I did not have that understanding,” Johnson said. “It seemed very urgent that we needed to get out, and they made it very clear that your application to stay longer needed to be approved.”
Even campus residents at UCLA, where the COVID-19 pandemic is worse, had a couple weeks’ notice to move, Johnson said. She thinks 48 hours was not enough time — even a week would have made a difference.
Other students also describe a sense of urgency.
Brittany Washington, a junior from California, doesn’t have family she can move in with immediately, she said. Her mother recently passed away, and her mother’s home was put up for sale, so she can’t return there.
Washington said she filled out the form requesting permission to stay, and it wasn’t difficult to for her to get approval, but the situation still feels uncertain, because it’s unclear if the doors will remain open through the summer.
Right now, the plan is for campus housing to remain open, Hess and Frazier said, but this could change as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds over the next few weeks.
Spring semester ends April 24. Even though Washington didn’t have a two-day move-out deadline, she’s still scrambling to find back-up housing for summer while trying to finish her courses.
“It affected me in a pretty harsh way, only because we’re still liable to focus on school as well as our living situation, so for someone like me, who doesn’t really know where their living situation is going to take place in a couple weeks, I have to also try to keep up my grades and maintain a good ending in school,” Washington said, “and I just think that’s just a lot of pressure on me. ... Honestly, I cried the other night just because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Masen Pitts, a freshman from Layton living in campus housing, wasn’t as far from home as Washington, but he has also faced turmoil the past week — with school, moving, and emotional farewells to his friends who had to leave.
When he found out Monday afternoon that he needed to move out by Wednesday, “everything in my mind immediately came crashing down,” he said in an email. “I knew I couldn’t move out on Wednesday. I’m a full-time student taking 17 credit hours. I had a midterm math exam, physics quiz, two online lectures and several other assignments that had to be done.”
He was able to get accommodations from his professors, and he was notified Tuesday night that he’d be able to stay in his dorm, but he said he wished he’d had a week’s notice.
Frazier, who has 30 years of experience in her field across several institutions, said that the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in her experience. Any emergencies she’s dealt with have been local, not global.
“All of us are kind of learning as we go,” Frazier said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
While the experience has been difficult for Johnson, she said “inevitably,” she’ll go back to Weber State.
“The staff really does care about the students,” she said. “I just think in this specific scenario there’s been some oversight.”