Mandatory evacuation of residence halls leaves students questioning next steps

Mandatory evacuation of residence halls leaves students questioning next steps

On Tuesday, March 17, the New College administration made the rapid decision to close residence halls and transition to virtual learning for the remainder of the spring semester at the behest of Florida’s Board of Governors. This decision marked a sharp departure from previous plans to welcome students back to campus on April 4, two weeks after spring break. The decision took many students who petitioned and were approved to remain on campus by surprise, as approvals were revoked and schools shut down across the state in response to the unprecedented spread of the novel coronavirus. The sweeping pandemic that has upended public life in recent weeks sent students scrambling home to different corners of the country, while others were forced to find temporary housing, seek secondary approval to remain on campus or apply to the student emergency fund to comply with the mandate to evacuate all residence halls by Friday, March 20. 

In the days following, many students have been left wondering how these decisions were made, as well as when they will be able to return to residence halls to gather items they may have left behind over spring break.

A timeline of the events is available below:

When the duration of required student absence from campus was still the three-week period from March 14 to April 3, students were able to petition the Office of Residential Life in order to make their case to stay on campus. President Donal O’Shea communicated this to the student body on March 11, and by the following day over 200 students had applied to stay on campus. Every student that was approved was required to submit an evacuation plan in the event that an evacuation was mandated by state authorities at another date.

This was exactly the case on March 17 when students were quickly told to pack their bags and go home anyway, following the mandate from the Florida Board of Governors that forced the administration to reverse their trajectory and evacuate the majority of those who elected to stay on campus “to the maximum extent possible.” Students that were approved to stay were consolidated into the Dort and Goldstein residence halls for safety reasons. According to Interim Dean of Students Randy Harrell, to date, only 15 students remain on campus.  

International students, particularly those subject to travel restrictions, and students without a home to go to were told to contact Student Affairs to appeal for an exemption to the mandatory evacuation directive. If a student appealed and was not approved by 5 P.M. on Thursday, March 19, they were instructed to evacuate. Students who felt they were unfairly denied were told to speak to Associate Provost Suzanne Sherman or Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs Mark Stier to make their case in person. 

Harrell stated that students without a home to return to were allowed to remain on campus “because they have no other housing alternative.” Students with alternative housing options were encouraged to take them due to health and safety concerns about students living together in close proximity. 

In a March 11 email, Harrell emphasized the severity of the pandemic and encouraged students to seek alternative options because “if the public health situation within our local region deteriorates, the entire campus may be closed, which would likely result in all remaining students being required to move to another location or in a worst case being confined to a portion of the campus for an extended period of time.”

“Because our campus does not provide the comprehensive medical services of a medical center, it is in the best interests of the students to return home, where they are more likely to have greater access to a full-service hospital or medical center,” Harrell said. However, Harrell also noted that if a student on campus were to become ill, administration has “prepared several rooms where they could self-isolate.”

The transition from on-campus residence to life at home with family or alternative housing has not been easy for many students. Some, such as second-year Leonor Muñoz, expressed disappointment and hurt after receiving the news that despite completing the petitioning process they would be forced to evacuate to an unwelcoming and in many ways traumatic home situation. Muñoz also petitioned to stay on campus because they were working on props for the theatrical production “Milk Milk Lemonade,” which would have featured New College’s first student director, third-year Sara Recht, and because they relied on a steady income from working at the Ringling Museum. 

“When my petition was denied, it felt like the earth was crumbling beneath me,” Muñoz said. “The world I had built here was falling apart, and everything I had—my education, my job, my partner—were all being pulled away from me.”

Muñoz attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where they were a senior when the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting that killed 17 people occurred. Their parents still live in Parkland, where Muñoz was forced to return home after their petition was denied. The town holds painful memories for them. Muñoz attempted to resubmit their petition after it was denied, but “because there was no health issue on file preventing [them] from returning,” it was denied again. 

“The fact that my PTSD is massively triggered whenever I’m back home isn’t enough, I guess,” Muñoz said.

On top of the trauma of returning to their hometown, Muñoz’ strict, Catholic parents do not recognize Muñoz’ gender identity, sexuality or their legal license to use medical marijuana to treat their PTSD and the side effects of an antidepressant.

“Being stuck here feels like the world outside doesn’t exist, and I have to tamp down every part of myself that’s not perfectly acceptable to my deeply Catholic parents,” Muñoz reflected. “While I know COVID-19 has nothing to do with my own personal trauma, it feels like everytime I try to get away, some big dark thing is pulling me back into it, like a black hole that will never let me escape.”

Muñoz said they understand why their petition was denied. They have a house, food and a kitchen to make it in, “which is more than a lot of people have.”

“My family does love me, even if they don’t understand or acknowledge my gender identity,” Muñoz acknowledged. “My situation is worse than it would be if I was back in Sarasota, but at least it’s stable and my housing is secure, and I know how incredibly lucky I am for that.”

International students who were eligible to remain on campus also expressed that the evacuation of the residence halls has been difficult because of the loss of friends and some student services. Thesis student Dalia Aita, who is Palestinian, imparted that she felt somewhat stranded on campus after being approved to stay, partially because she did not get to say goodbye to her friends who were barred from returning to campus after spring break. Aita is from the Gaza Strip, which under normal circumstances is under blockade or siege and is extremely difficult to enter or leave. Following the spread of COVID-19, the entire Strip was locked down and entry barred.

“Under normal circumstances, it is not safe for me to be home, but topped with the Corona crisis, that is off of the table,” Aita reflected on why she needs to stay on campus. “In any case I cannot risk traveling that distance and possibly bringing the virus to the Strip.”

“My family is very worried about me for sure, but happy that at least I get to have a place to live.”

Third-year Maria Sheahata, who hails from Egypt, also expressed gratitude that she didn’t have to evacuate campus.

“I wish I could go back home, but I don’t think it’s safe to take any international flights right now, or even be in an airport,” Sheahata confided. 

As far as on-campus services, Sheahata said that there are almost none for students that remain, in accordance with Harrell’s announcement that services would be markedly reduced during the time that residence halls are closed, although Aita and Director of Marketing and Communications Ann Comer-Woods confirmed that the food pantry has been well-stocked by the Office of Residential Life and is available for student use. Sheahata said that Housing offered her a packed meal service that she denied because she planned to cook for herself, as did Aita, but the service is available to other students, and Comer-Woods said boxed dinners will be provided for students upon moving into their new residence in Dort and Golden. There is also an RA on duty and security for students that remain on campus.

Students in need were encouraged to apply to the campus emergency fund, which is a pool of money set aside to assist students who are struggling to meet their basic needs as a result of a crisis situation, or to help mitigate the financial ramifications associated with an unforeseen situation such as the current pandemic, natural disaster or sudden loss of employment. Requests per person could not exceed $2500. Students seeking assistance were encouraged to reach out to Regina Rodarte, assistant director of case management, in order to apply for financial support. This semester the emergency fund committee received nine applications for assistance, seven of which were due to COVID-19, and all nine were granted. Six more applications were pending at the time of writing. 

“During the coronavirus pandemic, student affairs was able to work collaboratively to ensure that students who identified as homeless, and reached out for support, were allowed to remain on campus until the end of the semester,” Rodarte stated. 

The Student Coalition for Combating Homelessness and Poverty (SCCHP) also worked closely with Rodarte to spread awareness of the emergency fund’s existence. The group also made a contribution to the fund, which is entirely supported by community donations and fundraising efforts. Student Affairs made a donation as well, and the New College Foundation, which is one of the fund’s biggest supporters, has ramped up fundraising efforts to assist students during the pandemic.

The President of SCCHP, third-year Carter Delegal, noted that the administration had previously invested very little time and energy into making the fund’s existence known.

“SCCHP and Regina Rodarte have both tried to raise awareness around the fund and raise money for it, but until this situation arose, no one from higher up in the NCF administration or Foundation had acknowledged its existence or asked for donations,” Delegal said. 

Delegal also emphasized that the process of getting approved for funding is a long and complicated process, and that this situation should provide an impetus for publicizing the fund outside of times of crisis and making the application process smoother. According to Rodartem in the wake of the pandemic the committee review process has been shortened to about a day.

Rodarte added that the committee “does not want the process of applying to the emergency fund to be an additional barrier for students, so our goal is to provide students with an easy, straightforward and consistent process.”

Administratively, Delegal noted that the situation could have been handled with more attention to the needs of housing insecure students, adding that the administration could have included information about local resources for students with nowhere to go, reached out to faculty and staff encouraging them to house students in need and more clearly emphasized the availability of on-campus resources like the emergency fund. 

“In general, we’ve seen a lot of messages from people in the administration emphasizing solidarity and mutual support, but we think there should have been more concrete solutions and resources offered at the outset to save students from some of the stress and anxiety this situation has caused,” Delegal critiqued.

On NC[F] Daimon, the New College alumni Facebook page, alumni displayed an outpouring of support for students in need and shared links to donate to the emergency fund, as well as contact information for individuals that would be able to provide housing for students.

Some alumni such as Rasha Mashara (‘14) were aware that not all students could afford to move back in with their family at the drop of a hat and immediately facilitated the creation of a Google Doc in which alumni and current students could enter their name, location and how many people they could host to provide temporary housing for students in need. Others, such as Gretchen Ashley (‘86) and Kathleen Coty (‘64) reached out with offers of empty Airbnbs, bedrooms, couches or even other alumni contacts in order to provide housing for students in the wake of residence hall closures.

In terms of refunds for housing and meal payments, Governor Ron DeSantis has confirmed that the Board of Governors is working on a plan to ensure that these are received. On March 24, O’Shea communicated to students that the college is “continuing to work with the other members of the State University System on a system-wide plan for prorated housing refunds,” and that they hope to have news to share by Friday, March 27.

O’Shea has also stated that the administration will identify a window of days, which would include a weekend, when students will be allowed to return to campus to move their belongings out of their rooms. The president said that this window would be announced with enough advanced notice to allow students who are from outside the Sarasota area to make travel plans, while students who are unable to return to the campus during the announced window will be given instructions on how to work with Residence Life to set a time that is appropriate for them.

On Wednesday, March 25, Stier communicated to B dorm residents that their window to retrieve belongings and complete the check-out process would be from that Wednesday until April 1, except Sundays, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. From the time of the announcement, students were given only one week to make travel arrangements and collect their belongings. Announcements of other move-out windows are forthcoming.

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