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Juniors and seniors scramble to make fall plans after Duke changes course on reopening

After Duke walked back reopening plans, some upperclassmen were left with mere weeks to compete with other students for an apartment, sign a lease, pack up their belongings and move—all during a pandemic. 

In a July 26 message to the Duke community, President Vincent Price announced that most juniors and seniors will not be able to live on campus for the Fall semester, except for those with “personal or academic circumstances” that require them to have campus housing. Juniors and seniors will have priority for housing in the spring.

The policy change will reduce the number of students living on campus by 30%, to combat the spread of the coronavirus on campus as cases increase in North Carolina and many other parts of the country. 

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, told The Chronicle July 26 that the number of people on campus determines factors from the number of students in single rooms—where they can “quarantine in place” if necessary—to density in classrooms and social spaces.

Duke is now encouraging juniors and seniors to stay home and take online classes. However, some sought housing near campus over the past week, citing jobs, wanting to see friends and the desire to get out of their parents’ houses.

“I think there was a little bit of peer pressure and then the realization that I can’t return to my job if I’m not in the state,” junior Olivia Reneau said. 

With the semester scheduled to begin three weeks after Price’s announcement, many juniors and seniors scrambled to rethink their housing plans, and some decided not to return to Durham at all.

Warning signs

Although the official announcement came with Price’s email, some students heard the news well before July 26.

Senior Connor Passe planned to live on campus in a block of four students. However, the night of July 23, Passe’s roommate showed him a screenshot of messages with a friend saying that upperclassmen would be living off campus in the fall.

The pair realized that if the news was true, there would soon be a rush by students to find alternative housing. To avoid the panic, Passe and his roommate signed a lease for an apartment in the Station Nine complex the following day. The two other members of his block were able to do the same.

Senior Grace Novak received an early-morning call July 24 from one of the members of her block. They were both concerned about potentially not being invited back to campus, especially after hearing the rumors.

Although Novak and her friends intended to spend their senior year on campus, they decided to seek off-campus housing ahead of time in case the speculation was true. Novak and her friend were able to sign a lease for an apartment on Friday after five frantic hours.

Reneau also caught a whiff of speculation before Sunday.

“The rumor mill had been spinning because it was suspicious that Duke had taken so long to give us any information about housing,” she said. Upperclass housing assignments were supposed to come out July 20, but Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life, sent an email to students July 23 explaining that assignments had been delayed. 

Schoenfeld confirmed Sunday that the upcoming change to Duke’s plans caused the delay in housing assignments.

At first, Reneau accepted the fact that she would probably be spending her junior year at home, citing concerns about the safety of the Durham community

However, upon reaching out to her friends, Reneau found that many of them planned to return to Durham. She said that this “peer pressure,” along with the fact that she cannot return to her job if she isn’t in North Carolina, pushed her to seek an apartment.

She scrambled to search for housing, but by Wednesday she was ready to give up. The next day, however, a friend of a friend told Reneau that two people had dropped from their lease. Reneau was able to take one of the spots.

An ongoing search

Senior Braelyn Parkman hoped to live on campus in apartment-style housing with a block of three other students. After she heard rumors on July 25, Parkman and her block began to search for potential apartments that evening.

“We thought, ‘It may not be announced that we’re not coming back to campus, but it seems like there’s enough proof that there should be a backup,’” Parkman said.

Throughout their search, Parkman’s original block split up for several reasons. One student got on-campus housing, while Parkman and the other two members were looking at different price ranges for an apartment.

Parkman was able to join another group with some friends, and as of Wednesday they had narrowed their search down to two or three different apartment complexes. However, one of her friends has yet to receive his financial aid package, hindering the group’s ability to make a final decision. 

Waiting until the announcement

Senior Isa Jimenez and her friends heard rumors about losing on-campus housing before the email from Price. Although some of her friends decided to drop their housing applications upon hearing the speculation, Jimenez decided to wait and see what happened with housing.

Although some of her friends decided to stay home for the year, Jimenez and two others began searching for apartments in Durham after the announcement. After spending all of Wednesday getting virtual tours of houses and apartments, they were approved for an off-campus house Thursday evening.

Senior Maksym Kosachevskyy wrote in an email that it was a “scramble” to find housing after the Sunday announcement.

“We managed to find an apartment around ten minutes from Duke, but it’s frustrating knowing we’re not welcome almost anywhere on campus for the semester,” he wrote. (Juniors and seniors living off campus will be able to come for in-person classes and some other academic purposes, but will not have access to dorms, dining areas or social spaces.)

“My decision-making process would likely have been different if I’d known sooner about their plans,” Kosachevskyy said.

Staying home

Senior Victor Cai said that it simply “didn’t make sense” for him to seek off-campus housing.

“Why would I be spending the money for food, gas, housing and rent to get an off-campus apartment if I can’t do anything on campus, since I don’t have access to any facilities and all my classes are online anyways?” Cai said.

He feels that “there’s no incentive or value to finding an apartment at Duke with the exception of wanting to get away from your parents or having a chance to semi-hang-out with your friends.”

Junior Andrew Lee told The Chronicle that he’s leaning toward staying at home and hasn’t been actively searching for an apartment. Lee also considered taking a gap semester or year at one point but now thinks that’s “probably not very likely,” and he’s open to living on campus in the spring.

“We’ll see how the fall semester goes, but I’d love to be back in the spring. Hopefully, we can have almost everyone back together on campus,” Lee said.

Some students considered finding an apartment before making the decision to stay home. Junior Thomas Howell scrambled to find off-campus housing upon receiving Price’s email but soon changed his mind.

“Two of my friends I was going to room with said they were going to stay home,” Howell said. “I’m now thinking that I’m going to stay home, partly because most of the options were unfurnished and it just didn’t feel worth it to go through all the effort of furnishing a new place if I’m only going to be there for three or four months.”

Senior Ellie Marlor plans to live at home, particularly because she is without a car and unable to find apartments within walking distance of grocery stores and campus.

She might have to quickly find an apartment if she cannot complete her senior thesis virtually, however.

“I really debated taking time off, but for the [neuroscience] department, to complete a thesis you need to work on it for the fall and spring, and so if I took the fall off, I would be unable to complete it,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Junior Kenny Moore is likely to spend the semester at home, but he’s considering all of his options.

“I don’t know if [finding an apartment] is going to be worth it because you’re basically just trading quarantining with your family versus quarantining at Duke with whoever you’re going to be living with,” he told The Chronicle.

Moore said that apartments are hard to find this late in the game and that he would prefer not  to take a full course load, especially because “online class didn’t really go well in the spring.” He is considering underloading by only taking three courses, or taking a gap semester.

Students' reactions

Several of the students who talked to The Chronicle criticized Duke’s communication of the change. 

“Duke’s communication is so horrendously cut and dry,” Reneau said. “It lacks any kind of acknowledgement that they have caused pain and anxiety and just general chaos in the upperclassmen community, which they did.”

Cai wrote that Duke could have communicated the news earlier, citing Harvard University and the California State University system as examples of institutions that announced their fall plans in the summer and spring, respectively.

Several students agreed that Duke already knew—or at least should have known—for a while that this decision would have to occur. The trend being set by other schools across the nation led them to believe that Duke would take a similar route even before the formal announcement.

“I think the worst part about how they handled this was the fact that everybody knew this was happening weeks before they told us,” Howell said. “I don’t know, if they knew this was happening, why they delayed the emails for so long. It made it really hard for people to figure out what they were going to do.”

“The data on COVID was out there for a while,” Kosachevskyy wrote.

In a Saturday email, Schoenfeld wrote that “the prevalence and persistence of COVID-19 is upending even the most carefully made plans, not just at Duke but across the country, and we are all acutely aware how disruptive these changes are, regardless of when they occur.”

He noted that Duke has for months monitored factors like health conditions, laws and regulations at the state and local level, hospital and health system conditions, travel restrictions, and concerns from members of the community. 

“All of these are changing on a daily basis, not for the good, and all of them can have some impact our the university’s ability to facilitate a safe environment for the fall semester,” he wrote. “Early on, President Price indicated that flexibility and resilience were going to be our two most important strengths if we were to meet the challenge of COVID-19, and that is still the case.”

Price’s earlier communications on fall planning, in May and June, noted that plans were subject to change based on health conditions and other factors.

Cai said he believes that freshmen and seniors should return in the fall, not sophomores.

“You already had your experience at Duke, both in person and online,” he said. “For those people for whom it’s their first and last year, it kind of sucks.”

In a subsequent email, Cai wrote that “there are arguments for everybody but with sophomores, they are at a position where they would be least affected, with two more years ahead of them at Duke for things to get normal again. Further, they got to have a normal experience at Duke in person and also they know how to navigate classes online and what to expect from that.”

Duke’s reopening FAQ states that first-years were chosen to come to campus because they are new to college and have “support, advising and academic engagement” needs that make a “cohesive” start to the beginning of their time at Duke important, while sophomores “share many of these same characteristics.”

Still, Price’s announcement threw juniors and seniors’ plans into disarray.

“It made me feel really anxious and freaked out about what I was going to do about everything,” Jimenez said.

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