As of this afternoon, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a pandemic. Despite nationwide university cancellations, Emory has yet to release an official policy regarding student relocation in the event of a campus shutdown. Instead of imitating the haphazard procedures of some other universities, Emory must take swift and conscientious action and make a thorough statement to ensure that students, especially international and low-income students, are prepared for the possible repercussions of forced housing relocation, food scarcity and limited access to online classes.

Academic institutions nationwide, including Harvard University (Mass.) and Yale University (Conn.), have decided to send students home following their respective spring breaks, citing fears that students may travel, contract and spread the virus. But students at these universities are rightly unnerved at the short notice their schools have given them to find temporary residence following campus-wide housing dispersals. Harvard, for example, gave students a mere five days to relocate, which creates undue financial and logistical burdens for those who have to move across the country or globe. Such behavior is dangerously negligent and has left students reeling on social media, imploring strangers for interim housing. 

In the event that Emory holds a hasty post-spring break evacuation, the ramifications would similarly be dire for both low-income and international students. Those close to me will be personally affected by this situation and have expressed great concern about the university’s slow action. International student Neil Tramsen (21C) told me, “closing all campus housing would leave me, as an international student, with nowhere to go. I would be unable to travel with such short notice and would have to rely on friends for a place to stay.” A one-way flight to London five days from now (following the same timeframe Harvard gave its students) would cost between $335 and $2500 for a resident of England. Visas also pose an additional concern, as some are contingent upon student enrollment and thus these students cannot leave the country without proper documentation. 

When asked how such a closure would affect them given their low-income status, Amália Tenuta (21C) said, “I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, or the means to get there… Emory is the only institutionalized safety net that exists in my life at this point. If I’m not in class, I would be placed in further precarity.” 

Lydia Abedeen (21C) echoed, “I work 40-hour weeks as an employee of the University — there’s so much more at stake than just housing. I won’t be able to eat or earn any money to finish grad school apps due this Fall.”

Simply put, students feel ill-prepared to face the strenuous demands of a rushed relocation, and it hits even closer to home knowing friends will face the brunt of it.

Georgia has racked up a total of 22 confirmed and presumed cases as of today, and Emory Healthcare admitted and treated its first COVID-19 patient yesterday. Given the rapidly evolving nature of the outbreak, it seems plausible that Emory will follow in the footsteps of other universities across the country, discouraging campus residence and transferring to virtual learning. 

Emory’s student body boasts a sizable international population of over 17% and a considerable number of low-income students, with 20% of students receiving Pell Grants. It would be irresponsible for Emory to provide students with the inadequate and untimely notices comparable to what some currently evacuating universities have provided. To quote Tenuta, “Monetary compensation for the credit hours, subsidized travel for low income, international and first generation students, and kick backs…should be a minimum” as a plan of security for students. 

Given the diverse makeup of our student body, the University owes its students a cognizant response. Emory must pre-emptively connect low-income and international students to interim housing resources and transfer the normal cost of student housing toward associated fees. There should also be considerable financial coverage for the storage or shipping of students’ belongings, just as Harvard began to offer this morning. 

The University should recommend that these students make appointments with financial and international advisors for assistance in booking reasonably priced flights home and should subsidize or cover the costs where possible. But for students from especially challenging financial situations, and for those from China, Italy, Korea, Iran and Japan, booking a flight home may not be achievable due to travel restrictions. 

The University should consider granting such students extended stay on campus or partner with local hotels and housing firms to provide these students with places of residence in the event of an evacuation.

If students return from spring break and must be quarantined on campus, Emory must be prepared to provide students with resources needed to recover from the infection. Self-isolation facilities should be offered on campus, such as in dorms. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the University designated Turman Hall as a space to treat infected students, providing free meals and medication, and excused class attendance. Emory must act in accordance with this  precedent at the minimum.

Low-income students may have a difficult time mitigating food insecurity as it is, and because students may self-isolate when following the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines, students will have a more challenging time accessing resources like the Eagle Food Co-op or Bread Coffeehouse. 

The University is indeed taking steps toward ensuring that instructors can teach their classes online, via Canvas and Zoom. Such programming was already implemented for students who have returned from their study abroad trips in Italy earlier this semester. In addition, instruction modules have also been sent to professors and teacher’s assistants to begin training to move classes online after break.

Online courses, however, may not be accessible to all students, especially for those returning home to communities with unreliable and intermittent internet access. Emory should extend the option for students to transfer their semester courses to a Maymester or summer session free of charge, or provide transient study funding for students who may have limited access to the internet or the computer-based resources necessary for makeshift online instruction. 

The actions Emory takes in the next few days will be critical to the student body’s well-being amid an international public health emergency. The University must provide students with vital resources to keep them from floundering and falling through the cracks. At the very least, the University should release a statement and plan of action sooner rather than later to give us more time to prepare for the alarming ramifications of COVID-19.