San Francisco State University student Jonathan Moreci (left) helps carry Robert Lammers' belongings to his car on March 11, 2020. Students at the university were advised to leave their dorms and return home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
San Francisco State University began urging the nearly 4,000 students who live in the school’s residence halls to pack up and head home Tuesday as part of efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
There has not yet been a confirmed case of the virus in that school community, but tight quarters and shared bathrooms can make dorms an easy place to get sick. With public health officials pushing social distancing, SFSU President Lynn Mahoney said she hoped suspending in-person classes and emptying out dorms could help curb broader transmission.
“If we can get 24,000 students to reduce their social contact, we should be able to help with mitigation," Mahoney said.
She also faced pressure from nervous parents. “I was getting emails all weekend long from parents asking me why I was not releasing their babies to them,” Mahoney said. “There's so much anxiety.”
Colleges and universities across the Bay Area have canceled school events, suspended in-person classes and many are asking students to move out of on-campus housing.
But some San Francisco State students said their school’s handling of the situation has only added to the tension.
"It's chaos," said freshman Jonathan Moreci, who lives in the dorms. “The first email that they sent was really confusing and sent a lot of the kids into a panic mode.”
A message sent Tuesday by the school’s housing directors read in part, “Given the suspension of face-to-face courses, it is our expectation residents will make every effort and use resources to return home. Residents should await additional guidance from the University on returning to campus.”
School leaders said they were trying to convey a sense of urgency, but the message left young people from around the country and the world scrambling to make arrangements.
“Everyone was like, where are we supposed to go?” said first-year dorm resident Heidy Rodriguez, who said she missed two days of work trying to put in place plans to get home to Los Angeles.
Another student from Texas, freshman Ashley Steele, said she’d made rushed plans to stay with her sister, who studies at San Diego State University, while Robert Lammers found friends willing to drive him home to Fresno.
University officials soon realized the tone of their initial message had spurred a sense of panic among students, and by Wednesday they issued a more tempered email, assuring students dorms would remain open and that those who needed to stay, could.
“We missed the mark in providing enough clarity and from the reactions we have received are aware of the confusion from our message,” officials wrote. “We apologize if this caused any undue stress or anxiety.”
But several students said they’d already purchased plane, train and bus tickets, or otherwise put in place plans to leave.
“Everyone is kind of freaking out,” said freshman Natalie Martel, who’s heading home to the San Diego area. “We don't really know what's going on. One day we just found out that we have a three-week break.”
With so many students leaving, Martel doesn’t want to stay, but she’s not happy about boarding an airplane either. “It’s a big deal to go home,” she said. “I’m pretty scared.”
Still, for students like Cesar Martinez Gomez, going home to Santa Rosa isn’t an option. “This is my home,” he said, explaining that his mother lives in Mexico and he isn’t in contact with his father.
As students around the country confront pressure to leave campus, student advocacy organizations have created a student relief fund to provide emergency aid, while experts on student housing and food insecurity have compiled resources to help schools support students through this period.
Plus, there’s the money. “I already paid everything in advance,” Gomez said. “So I'm not just gonna leave because they're telling me to leave.”
Other students say they hope to be reimbursed for any time they spend out of the dorms. Some began planning a protest, but it fizzled out amid the confusion and mass exodus.
Administrators say they expect many international students, students in emergency housing, former foster youth and those who work in the city to stay in place. President Mahoney said up to 900 students have indicated they’ll be sticking around.
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San Francisco State has suspended in-person classes through April 5, and university leaders said they’ll be monitoring the situation and will update students before then.
“We're trying not to go too far out ahead because we're hopeful that maybe all of these efforts will end this faster,” Mahoney said. "But if it doesn't, it has to go longer, we're going to have lots of conversations about lots of things.”
She said if public health officials indicate that transmission rates are increasing or if a confirmed case is found among students or staff, administrators could ask students to stay away from campus longer.
As for things returning to normal, Mahoney said she’ll be relying on the experts. “Right now, the departments of public health are our lifelines,” she said.