The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus limbo: College students are angry and anxious as they await news about the fall

Howard University in Washington announced it will teach some classes face to face this fall. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Two Texans are yearning to return to college in the nation’s capital after dreary months of waiting to hear whether the coronavirus closures would end. Like many students nationwide, they spent their spring in a surreal state of pandemic limbo, not knowing when or how their education — or really, their lives — would resume.

Folasade Fashina, 20, of Austin lined up an off-campus apartment for her junior year at Howard University but fretted that all her classes might be online. She joked one recent day on Twitter that Howard might finally reveal its fall plans in October.

Caitland Love, 21, of San Antonio hopes to live on campus in her senior year at Georgetown University. Without stable housing, she has bounced around Texas since the campus shut down in March.

Fashina finally learned Thursday that Howard will teach at least some courses face to face, but she said she believes a price cut is warranted. Love is still waiting on Georgetown.

“Kind of a scary feeling,” Love said. “Not knowing where I’m going to be in two months.”

One after another, colleges and universities in recent weeks have announced plans for operating a fall term in the shadow of a disease that has killed more than 120,000 Americans. Social distancing, masks, housing limits, virus screening and combinations of in-person and online teaching will be the new normal on these campuses.

Masks required and fewer parties (allegedly): What college will look like this fall

But some schools are holding out, struggling to piece together a plan to bring students back safely. Princeton and Yale universities have warned they won’t set plans until early July. Georgetown President John DeGioia sent students a 28-paragraph advisory on June 9. It assured them that the university was immersed in the details of how to reopen during the extraordinary public health crisis. Skeptics, however, found it lacking in hard information.

“Beginning in the next few days, we will issue a series of communications on our planning for each of our campuses,” De­Gioia wrote. The undergraduate plan, as of Sunday, was still pending.

University leaders say their planning depends heavily on local public health conditions and the judgments of mayors, governors and other government officials. That produces inherent uncertainty and volatility.

Even at schools that have declared reopenings, things can change. The University of Arizona said in late April that it aimed to bring students back to its Tucson campus.

Colleges push viral testing to open in the fall. But some worry about deepening the health crisis

But university President Robert C. Robbins acknowledged Thursday that the surge in coronavirus cases in his state and elsewhere in the Sun Belt has clouded the outlook. If the term were to start now, Robbins said, he would keep the university’s 44,000 students off campus. “If I think it’s not safe, I’m not going to do it,” he said. He added that he plans to make a final call by July 24, a month before school starts.

For many incoming freshmen, the limbo has an off-ramp: gap years. How many will take that step remains to be seen. Options for keeping busy are fewer than in normal times. Jobs and internships are hard to find in a fragile economy. Traveling is restricted, too. Still, a year off is an option.

For continuing students, the calculation is more complex. They want to rejoin friends and professors and stay on track with their studies.

“This is producing an incredible amount of anxiety,” said Maya Eashwaran, 21, a rising senior at Princeton. She has been stuck for months at her family’s house in Alpharetta, Ga., awaiting the university’s decision about its New Jersey campus.

Eashwaran soldiered through Zoom classes from March to May. She dislikes virtual learning and worries about what will happen if that’s the only choice for the fall. “Most of my friends and most people I know have found it to be tedious and difficult,” she said.

That remote world has extended this summer as Eashwaran logs on from home for an internship with a federal agency. Regardless of what route Princeton takes, she said, she would not take a leave of absence because she wants to graduate with her friends. “We’re just trying our best to keep our hopes up,” she said. “If we don’t go back, I’ll be definitely very upset, but we’ll have to figure out a way to move forward.”

Even students who know their campuses will be open face uncertainties, especially about housing.

Tamir Harper, a junior at American University, starts his day by rolling out of bed at his home in Philadelphia and checking his email.

Fewer roommates in the fall: U-Md., American U. put new limits on student housing to curb coronavirus

“Zillow, Trulia,,” the 20-year-old said, rattling off the websites he uses to find D.C. apartments for rent. Harper had hoped to live on campus in the fall, but his plans changed. The private university in Northwest Washington this month announced it will cut the number of on-campus beds by nearly half, and freshmen and sophomores who want to live on campus will be given preference.

“It was disappointing. I understood why it was happening, but I don’t think the university thought about the inequities and how challenging it would be,” Harper said. “I called, probably, at least six apartments, and each of them required that you make three times the monthly rent.”

Harper asked his parents to co-sign his lease, but they did not meet the income threshold set by landlords.

“They laughed when I was like, ‘Who’s going to co-sign?’ ” Harper said of his parents. His mom joked: “You gotta ask your dad to go make a few more thousands.”

Fashina was grateful to hear that Howard is on track to welcome students back to its campus and the striking green known as the Yard. But she worries about the price.

“They still haven’t said anything about lowering tuition,” Fashina said. She contends that a partially online experience isn’t worth the full price of roughly $28,000 in tuition and fees, not counting room and board.

A’dreana Williams, 18, of Jersey City, N.J., an incoming first-year student at Howard, said she might start at a community college if the university doesn’t provide a discount for remote courses. She wants to join Howard’s Caribbean dance team, but with large gatherings prohibited, she doesn’t know whether she can.

“I didn’t get a prom, didn’t get a graduation, didn’t get a senior trip. . . . I didn’t get any of it,” Williams said. “I really just want to have a normal college experience.”

Jackson Butler, 20, a rising senior at Georgetown, is promoting an online petition that urges a price cut to account for the diminished student experience that is certain to occur. Georgetown’s tuition and fees total about $57,000 per year.

College students are rebelling against full tuition after classes move online

“Obviously, there’s a huge debate nationally right now about tuition,” Butler said. “Is online in your parents’ basement worth the same thing as the whole in-person college experience?” He is living with his parents in New Canaan, Conn., and is feeling a slow burn as he waits on the Jesuit university to make up its mind about the fall. He feels cornered. “What are you going to do — take a gap year? Probably going to have to suck it up and do whatever option they choose.”

Like many universities, Georgetown and Howard offer financial aid for students in need. But schools across the country have resisted lowering tuition during the pandemic. They say that revenue is needed to cover expenses and that all classes, whether remote or in person, count for credit toward a degree.

Love, the Georgetown senior from San Antonio, said the university must also be mindful of the burdens of students like herself who come from low-income families. They will find it harder to purchase affordable plane tickets on short notice, Love said, and they rely on the school for help with room and board. “It really does matter where I’m going to be and how the university houses me,” Love said.

Georgetown officials declined repeated requests for interviews about the fall.

Plans for undergraduates “are uniquely complex given the residential and academic components on a very dense campus footprint,” Georgetown said Friday in a statement. “At the same time, we have been deeply engaging and consulting with faculty, staff and students through this planning and decision process.”

Georgetown law students learned on June 10 that in-person classes will resume. Other graduate programs have announced reopening plans.

But undergrads crave more information.

Mallory Price, 21, a rising senior from Tacoma, Wash., is staying in New Jersey for now. She and several friends share a lease, signed before the pandemic, on an off-campus D.C. townhouse that starts this summer. Desperate to know what’s next, Price is steamed at Georgetown’s opacity. She has vented on Facebook — “just me yelling into the void,” she wrote. She just wants to get back somehow to the campus and neighborhood overlooking the Potomac River to finish her degree.

“At this point, it’s been weeks and weeks of no notification,” Price said. “I don’t really know if there’s a good coping mechanism or tactic when you don’t have information to make decisions.”

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news