PROVO — Utah colleges are facing myriad issues when it comes to finding ways for students to return to their housing safely this fall while mitigating the potential spread of coronavirus in highly concentrated conditions.
College housing tends to be small. Several young adults are often packed into a space together — particularly in dorms or on-campus housing, which makes social distancing difficult.
Utah universities say they are aware of the issues and are striving to develop plans that will reduce some of the risks associated with living in these conditions, however some students still have concerns.
“The ideas are great, the plans that they have in place I do feel confident in them. I do think that BYU is taking it seriously,” said BYU senior Jordan Hamann. “But I am concerned how the enforcement will be dealt with because you can encourage all you want, but if people decide not to follow your encouragement, I could still get sick.”
Changes like reducing the number of people living inside of a unit, requiring masks, restricting visitors and implementing phased move-in dates are examples of some of the policies universities are implementing or strongly encouraging in hopes of mitigating spread of the virus.
Still, as Hamann pointed out, a lot comes down to personal accountability and can differ between on-campus and off-campus housing.
Many Utah colleges like the University of Utah, BYU and Utah State University all offer on-campus housing that is overseen by the university. When COVID-19 first broke out in the state and students were encouraged to return home, these schools were able to release occupants from their contracts without penalty.
For this upcoming fall semester, BYU and USU have announced a phased return to campus that will occur across multiple days starting in mid-August. BYU’s housing website says this process will “facilitate physical distancing and help ensure no signs or symptoms of illness are present before students return to classes.”
The University of Utah has space for about 4,000 students to live on-campus this upcoming semester, according to Lexie Maschoff, assistant director for communications and assessment for the Department of Housing and Residential Education.
She said the university is undergoing a variety of policy changes pertaining to fall housing in order to best support the health of the community.
For example, the school has done away with units that house three to four occupants and is instead sticking solely with single and double occupancy. Guests will not be permitted inside any of the apartment areas during fall semester.
“Those adjustments to the guest policy is just in an effort to minimize the number of people that we have within our resident hall community areas to help mitigate exposure in that way,” Maschoff explained.
Face coverings will also be required in on-campus residential areas when the student is outside of their immediate room or apartment area.
Maschoff said there will be isolation spaces blocked off within the buildings that students can use if they become ill. If self-isolating, a student can arrange to receive meal deliveries.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said BYU students who test positive for COVID-19 will also be able to make arrangements with on-campus housing to isolate as needed.
Off-campus housing is more complicated as universities have less say — even at BYU, which requires all single undergraduate students to live in approved housing unless they complete a waiver and receive approval from the Off-Campus Housing Office.
This lack of university control caused some issues in the spring for BYU students living in off-campus housing as they were left to the mercy of their landlords when it came to ending a lease early. While the university encouraged students to return home, many landlords were reluctant to release them from their leases early due to the financial impact it would have on them.
Some BYU students were able to eventually break their leases due to legally binding decisions made in arbitration with a third-party judge facilitated by the BYU Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. However, those were determined on a case by case basis.
For this upcoming semester, some BYU students are opting to remain at home and avoid the issue altogether if they are able to take their classes online.
“I’m at higher risk because I have asthma,” said Julie Brooks, a BYU law school student. “If I can take my classes online, no problem, I’m not going to pay to move across the country when at any given moment I could have to leave again and go through another fiasco.”
But for the students who will live in student housing this fall, whether it be because of personal choice or necessity to advance their education, there are complexities they must contend with.
Hamann, who lives in off-campus housing, said he also has asthma which puts him at a higher risk of having complications if he gets the virus. He’s had to take a number of precautions to feel safe such as staying in when possible and wearing a mask when around others.
Only three of his five roommates currently reside inside of the apartment and they’ve been careful about social distancing, but Hamann said this could change as people move back to Provo for school.
“You can’t ask that of everyone, and while not everyone in the apartment is often around one each other due to life schedules, as more people come back and as more people move in can I expect them to not go out, or to stay away from me without thinking I’m some big jerk?” he asked.
“These are things I never thought I’d have to think about but now I think about them all the time.”
He said he plans to continue wearing a mask and avoiding being around others whenever possible for his own safety, but it’s been interesting to see some of his community and neighbors interact in a way that he doesn’t feel comfortable.
“It’s very 2020 to see others going out, eating together, having activities,” Hamann said. “I wish I could join. I don’t hate them for doing that, I just wish I could feel safe joining them like I used to.”
Brooks, whose been quite active in drawing attention to the issue of students being unable to break their leases when they were encouraged to go home in the spring, said students living in off-campus housing are also concerned about moving into apartments as there hasn’t been talk of a phased return.
The BYU Off-Campus Housing Office is encouraging students to read their housing contracts carefully as they determine plans for fall.
The school website reminds students that “off-campus landlords are not BYU employees or companies, and the university does not have power to cancel the contract or release you from it. The contract can be canceled only under certain conditions set out in the contract itself.”
The website also says, “These are uncertain and unprecedented times, full of risks and unknowns. Please carefully consider your options moving forward.”
Student Housing Contracts CEO Kristy McClintick, a real estate service aimed at Utah Valley University and BYU students, said she’s noticed the uncertainty rippling across the community reflected in the types of contracts available on the popular Facebook page BYU/UVU Student Housing.
“Before BYU announced that they were indeed going to be holding in-person classes, there was an influx of students trying to sell their housing contracts,” McClintick said. “Over the past week or two, I have seen a significant increase in property posts vs. students attempting to sell their contract.”
She noted that more students with shared rooms have been trying to sell their contracts than those living in private ones.
Additionally, she said, in previous years the majority of the Provo housing market would be preleased for the upcoming fall semester by the beginning of July. However, several communities are still trying to sell.
“Communities are having to either offer high renewal concessions or move-in concessions to get the traffic they need to meet their preleasing goals,” McClintick said. “I am also seeing that properties are decreasing rents or are staying the same as the 2019-20 school year to remain competitive.”
Students like Brooks and Hamann hope a balance can be struck between students and universities so the community can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 together.
“It’s like a wildfire,” Hamann said. “One person can start it, but everyone has to breathe the smoke.”