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As Duke weighs students’ needs with social distancing, international students describe 'chaotic' response

UPDATE March 15 at 10:11 p.m.: Mary Pat McMahon sent The Chronicle an email Sunday night with updated numbers about students who applied to stay on campus and students that financial aid worked with to secure flights home.

Editor’s Note: Winston Yau’s request to stay on campus was approved Sunday afternoon, shortly after the publication of this article. Yijia Liu told The Chronicle on Sunday that he had found off-campus housing.

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe, many students want to know what qualifies them to remain on campus. As Duke aims to sizably reduce the number of people on campus to contain the outbreak, many students are being told to leave.

When administration restricted campus access Thursday, they allowed students to apply to continue living on campus for “personal safety and health reasons.” However, several undergraduate international students told The Chronicle their requests were denied despite their fears about COVID-19 and their ability to return to the United States.

Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost/vice president for student affairs, told The Chronicle that the University has to decrease the number of students on the campus for public health reasons, including protecting vulnerable people in the Duke community from the virus. 

“Not everybody’s susceptibility and greater health risk is obvious,” she said. “When you walk around, you don’t necessarily know who has an invisible disability or susceptibility to greater danger.”

In total, the Keep Learning team received 4,400 total requests, and around 3,500 were unique individual students, McMahon wrote in an email Sunday night. She wrote that 463 students were approved to stay, 568  were denied, and another 195 were approved to stay on campus later than March 16 until they can arrange to leave. Around 2,200 wanted to access their dorms this weekend to take home their belongings.

More than 2,000 students initially requested to stay on campus, she said—too many people to allow for proper social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. This number included winter and spring athletes, she noted, but athletics is no longer a reason to stay since Duke suspended athletics activities March 12.

Duke denied various international students from countries with a Level 3 risk travel advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention permission to remain on campus Saturday morning. That changed when the University altered its policy Saturday afternoon to allow students from Level 3 countries to stay, according to McMahon, and sent out housing acceptance emails to some students.

“I recognize quite clearly as well the other humans that this is really coming at a personal and communal cost,” McMahon noted.

Undocumented students who can’t travel safely; students who have had certain types of surgeries and need follow-up care; students without reliable wireless access; immunocompromised students and students with unsafe home situations will also be approved, she said.

‘We are sorry that we are unable to approve your request.’

Sophomore Winston Yau, who applied to stay on campus but was rejected Saturday morning and again Saturday evening, said returning to his home of Hong Kong is “definitely not an option.”  Hong Kong is not included in the CDC Level 3 warning for China.

Yau said he is afraid that, if he goes home, he will not be able to come back to the United States for an internship in the summer, and he is afraid he will be exposed to the virus while traveling. He also said he has elderly family members at home with compromised immune systems.

“The fact that young people could have very mild, cold-like symptoms and unknowingly pass it on to people who are more vulnerable, I think is just unacceptable,” he said.

Yau said he is searching for housing in Durham at the moment, and he has looked into finding a place to stay through the Duke Mutual Aid Facebook group, which has helped provide housing, food and other services for people affected by the move off campus. 

Yijia Liu, a first-year from Singapore, was also denied permission to stay on campus twice, Saturday morning and evening. He wants to avoid traveling home because of the risk of exposure to the coronavirus during the long journey. Like Yau, he also fears he will not be able to return to the United States, as he plans to do a Duke summer program through the mathematics department called DOMath.

“I don’t know what I can do now, because I might have to go and find off-campus housing or something,” Liu said after he was rejected for the second time. “I’m still considering options now.”

He told The Chronicle Saturday evening that he has to find housing soon because, if he is unable, he will have to buy plane tickets home—an option he called a “last resort” in a Saturday follow-up email. He wrote in a Sunday email that Duke had granted him a housing extension until March 22. 

When it comes to the fear of infection, McMahon said plane travel alone isn’t enough of a reason to stay on campus.

“Some of the criteria we’ve been vetting includes, you know, somebody who is both elderly and immunocompromised at home,” she said. “I think the plane travel by itself, if that was the case, we wouldn't be able to achieve our goals. And I think there are lots of measures that individuals can take and that airports’ employees can take right now.”

All of the students interviewed for this story who were rejected Saturday morning received the same email, and they provided copies to The Chronicle. The rejection emails contain no information about why students were rejected and do not address students by name.

The students who were rejected twice received the same email both times.

The email was sent by the Keep Learning team, which McMahon said is charged with vetting requests to stay. Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek leads the team, which includes staff from DukeReach and Student Affairs. 

“Since VP Bennett and VP McMahon's email Thursday evening, the situation has continued to change and it has become more urgent that as many students as possible not be on campus for the remainder of the semester,” the Keep Learning email reads. “This is for the health and safety of individual students as well as the greater campus community.”

It continues, “The Keep Learning team reviewed your request to remain in on-campus housing. We are sorry that we are unable to approve your request.”

Not ‘on your own’ for finances and visas

The rejection email from the Keep Learning team states that the team will grant students short-term extensions beyond the current Monday at noon deadline to move out of dorms, and asks students who want such an extension to contact them by email with the length of time they need to stay. It directs students who have “financial concerns in leaving Duke and Durham” to contact the Karsh Office of Undergraduate Financial Support.

McMahon said Duke would provide financial assistance for travel for students who couldn’t afford to go home.

“We’re not saying to people, ‘You’re on your own,’” she said.

McMahon wrote in an email that financial aid had worked with 250 students to book travel. She wrote that those 250 were presumably included in the 568 total rejections.

Musa Saleem, a sophomore from Pakistan and a member of the Community Editorial Board, wrote in a Sunday afternoon message to The Chronicle that he has not yet heard from Duke about the status of his application. 

However, Alison Rabil, assistant vice provost and director of the Office of Undergraduate Financial Support, told him in an email, which Saleem provided to The Chronicle, that Duke would pay for the cost of a flight home, grant him a housing extension until the flight and possibly cover “some living costs until work study funds are issued and refunds of food points/unused meals come through in the next few weeks.”

Musa wrote in an email that his family had booked him a flight for Tuesday.

Students got good news in a recent email from the Duke Visa Services Office, which clarified that they would not lose their F-1 or J-1 student visas, which typically only allow students to take one online course per semester, as a result of the move to online classes.

“The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which governs the international student population, has recognized that most colleges and universities are transitioning to online instruction and has temporarily relaxed restrictions on online coursework,” reads the email, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle.

A ‘chaotic’ response to housing requests

Ada Ye, a first-year from Shanghai, China, was denied permission to stay on campus Saturday morning. However, her request was approved that evening after the policy change that ensured all students from CDC Level 3 countries could remain on campus.

The approval email was written by Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student life and dean for residence life, and forwarded to Ye by the Keep Learning team. Gonzalez’s message states that Ye will have DukeCard access to her own residential building but not others and notes that “while campus services will be maintained to support you, some amenities will be curtailed.”

The Keep Learning team added a message of sympathy when it forwarded the approval.

“We apologize if you have received a previous denial communication and for the stress that likely caused to you and your family,” the email states. “Thanks for your patience as we continue to navigate an unprecedented time.”

Ye said she is “quite happy” about her own situation and felt that Duke had “finally” considered the response of international students.

However, she said Duke’s response to international students’ living situation was “chaotic.” She booked plane tickets home immediately after being rejected, she said, and will thus lose hundreds of dollars. 

“They kind of did the whole thing in the worst way, but now they’ve reversed it,” she said. 

She also praised Duke staff for “very promptly” responding to students’ emails over the past days.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public relations and government affairs, has emphasized to The Chronicle repeatedly that Duke is evaluating circumstances constantly, sometimes on an hourly basis, due to the unprecedented nature of the outbreak and the response to it. 

First-year Angikar Ghosal, who is from India, received an advisory in an email from the Indian embassy in Washington, advising Indian students to petition to continue living in on-campus housing. 

“If you are staying in on-campus housing and are asked to vacate, check with your university if you can petition to continue staying in on-campus housing,” reads the advisory, a copy of which Angikar provided to The Chronicle. “If you cannot petition for continued on-campus housing or your petition or not accepted, consult with your university or your network on how to find alternate accommodations.”

But Duke twice denied his request to stay, only to accept him Sunday after his parents emailed to appeal.

Ghosal noted that India has already closed parts of its land border and imposed other travel restrictions. Going home could cause visa problems for him, he said, and he would have to risk exposure on long flights. 

He told The Chronicle Saturday evening, before he was approved to stay, that he had received  short-term permission to remain on campus until Thursday and was looking for housing in the United States. People were “extremely helpful” as he looked for housing, he said, commending Mutual Aid for their work.

While he said Saturday was “a bit of a rush,” he is satisfied now that he can stay. 

“I am very happy and thankful to Duke right now,” he said.

He said the International House has been helpful throughout the process, providing guidance and advising students to send statements from their parents to I-House and the Keep Learning team. 

Yau, who as of the time of publication still has to leave campus, expressed frustration with the administration’s response.

He said Saturday evening that his mother was going to email administration to appeal, sending them the information from his request form along with language he said the parents of some Chinese students used in emails to administration. He has passed the Chinese parents’ statement along to a group chat of international students so they can email Duke administration themselves.

Yau provided a copy of the statement, written before Duke changed its policy to allow Chinese students to stay, to The Chronicle. It states that asking students to move out “has a tremendous impact on the Chinese international community.”

“Our sons and daughters are left with nowhere to go,” it reads. “They are panicking overseas, trying to figure out what they should do with this tremendous challenge that has suddenly been posed to them.”

“The safer strategy should be providing basic living for students and prevent their exposure to coronavirus instead of avoiding responsibility,” it reads. 

Yau told The Chronicle Sunday morning that his mother had sent in an appeal and he was waiting for a response.

“Right now, it’s all about trying to wrangle with the Duke administration,” he said.

Jake Satisky and Stefanie Pousoulides contributed reporting.

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