By Isabella Jibilian
Cara, a freshman majoring in international studies at the University of San Francisco, had it all planned out. After finishing spring semester, she’d stay in San Francisco to take Korean language classes. She wouldn’t have to go home for more than a week, and she preferred it that way.
“My dad’s an alcoholic, that’s the reason I wanted to leave home,” she said. “I came to the West Coast to be independent.”
But by March 21, Cara, who did not want her last name used, will return home for the rest of the semester, and perhaps the summer too. She worries about being able to focus on her classes, now taught online, amidst the stressors of her family home.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “But I have to.”
In an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus, and most recently, to comply with shelter-in-place orders issued by the city of San Francisco and other Bay Area counties, the University of San Francisco and Stanford University have asked their students to pack up their rooms and move home. Both say that they will continue to provide housing and dining for those in need, such as international students, and students with health or safety risks, or those experiencing housing instability. Cara did not apply for an exception, since she felt uncomfortable living in a nearly empty dorm.
But for many students like Cara, going home is no easy option. At both Stanford and USF, some students worry about unknowingly spreading the disease and others mourn the loss of stability. And for low-income students, leaving campus housing means losing a lifeline to employment, healthcare, and other services.
The Spread of COVID-19 in the Bay Area
Bay Area colleges are not alone. Across the country, colleges are shuttering. Campuses, with their close communal living spaces, can be a breeding ground for spreading disease. It’s difficult to practice social distancing in dorm rooms and cafeterias, university officials say.
“These are very difficult actions to take, but we are asking individuals to make deep sacrifices for the good of those in our community who are most vulnerable to the threat of infection,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in an announcement on Friday. Paul Fitzgerald, the president of USF, issued a similar statement on Friday.
Also on Friday, a Stanford undergraduate tested positive for COVID-19, bringing Stanford’s total confirmed cases up to four. As of Monday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in USF’s student population.
As of Monday evening, Santa Clara County had 138 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and San Francisco County had 40, according to public health departments.
Many students, especially those at Stanford, worry about infecting their families when they return home, or contracting COVID-19 if they live in a hotspot like New York.
“Now that some of the undergraduate population has been hit, it’s unclear who has it and who doesn’t,” said Isaiah Drummond, vice president of Stanford’s student association.
Some don’t have room in their homes to properly isolate themselves and prevent spreading COVID-19 to their families.
“Their ‘self-quarantine’ is living with three siblings in the same room,” said Drummond.
Other students are plagued by financial concerns. For many Stanford and USF students, leaving campus means leaving behind their jobs.
Jeff Rodriguez, a senior at Stanford majoring in sociology, says that he works 40 to 60 hours a week during the school year, in addition to taking his classes. He works a couple of part-time jobs that vary from research to student government to a role as a residential advisor.
He sends anywhere from $500 to $1,000 back home each month to help his family in San Diego. In addition, he pays about $459 a month to help pay off his grandmother’s medical debt from a dental procedure.
“My mom wanted me back home to San Diego County, because Santa Clara County is scary right now,” he said.
Now back home in San Diego, he says that some, but not all, of his campus jobs will allow him to work remotely. He estimates he’ll lose about 10 hours of work a week.
“It’s a tighter budget, because I support so many things,” he said.
Rodriguez’s move also impacted his access to health care. On campus, he has a student health plan, with access to the campus clinic as well as emergency care. Off campus, he doesn’t have health insurance.
Other students, like Kiara Dunbar, a sophomore at Stanford, rely on income from campus jobs that cannot be done remotely. Dunbar normally works as a payroll office assistant, handing out checks, receiving documents, and advising customers. As of Monday, she doesn’t know if she will receive housing on campus — her case to stay is under review.
And even those who can stay may experience impacts. Certain campus jobs, like tutoring, rely on providing a service to the student population.
To support students through this time of transition, Stanford has extended financial aid to fund flights for students, and student leadership raised more than $25,000 to help with meals, rides to airports, and other expenses.
While some wait to find out if they will be able to live on campus, other students, especially graduating seniors, pack and prepare to part ways. Many wonder if in-person classes will resume before the end of the year, or if they’ll have the chance to don mortarboards and walk at a graduation ceremony.
“I haven’t cried today, but every other one of my friends has,” said Avery Tallman, a senior at Stanford. “People are saying their goodbyes.”