A sign outside the emergency entrance to Emory Hospital advises people with coronavirus-like symptoms to remain in their vehicles and wait for an attendant to help Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Photo: John Bazemore/AP
Photo: John Bazemore/AP

Emory student: Evicting students from dorms amid a pandemic endangers them

Fatima Elfakahany is an Emory University senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies and philosophy. A graduate of North Cobb High School, she is passionate about social justice and human rights and hopes to work with disadvantaged groups in her career.

In this guest column, Elfakahany questions Emory’s decision to suspend classes and empty dorms, saying students may be returning to areas with greater coronavirus risks and fewer health resources.

Emory was the first college in Georgia to announce it was ending face-to-face classes last week. It has instructed students to move out by Sunday. Residential facilities will remain closed for the spring semester.

By  Fatima Elfakahany

So that’s it, then. An email, a directive, and then—nothing. 

A fine way to send off the class of 2020; an even finer way to deliver a message to first, second, and third year students: that it is this university’s job to protect us, to keep us safe, and that they have decided not to do so.

What you did is not social distancing. Social distancing would have been cancelling class. Evicting students from residence halls is not the same thing. Evicting students is washing your hand of the matter by distributing the problem to other communities, other areas, other states, other countries. 

Emory University, a widely regarded medical institution, is perhaps most equipped to deal with COVID-19. The places to which you are forcing students to return —neighborhoods, cities, counties—don’t have the resources we do. Dealing with the situation by sending us back home shows that you’ve decided to not deal with the situation at all. It’s not a good move, and I implore you to reconsider.

It’s important to point out how this seems to us. We were told that “the overall health and well-being of our students, faculty, staff, and surrounding community is our priority.” Okay, sure. But we read that to mean if any of those members should come down with the COVID-19 virus, you don’t want to be held responsible. 

You’re sending students back home to potentially dangerous situations for their physical well-being. For students with the means, they’ll be traveling by air or bus or train, where the potential for exposure to and spread of COVID-19 is greater. U.S. students being sent home to highly infected states also face greater risk.

Emory University, as with many colleges and universities, is a safe place for its students, a haven. This space allows us to build routines, foster relationships, and access resources. When you yank all that support away in one simple email, you’ve undermined a core reason for the university’s existence. 

What of students who can’t afford to go home? 

What of students who rely on the university’s internet? 

What of students who depend on the university’s library? 

What of students whose home life is not conducive to learning? 

Students who require the university’s health care? Students who depend on the university’s dining plan? Students who depend on university housing? Students who don’t have their own laptops? Students (and staff) who rely on university jobs on-campus for income? Students who live abroad, who might not be able to return for future studies because of the Trump administration’s travel ban?

Fatima Elfakahany

What of nursing students, who still have to do in-person clinicals or face graduating later? What of those students? All of these facets of student life and identity must be considered moving forward and should have been prioritized during the initial stages of COVID-19 contingency plans.

We’ve been receiving emails that the university is trying to coordinate options for low-income and international students. While their attempts are appreciated, I’m seeing more done by student-coordinated efforts than university ones, such as pairing students in need of free housing with local community members who have the room available. However, those resources should have been already in place and wouldn’t be necessary if you weren’t evicting us altogether. 

As COVID-19 plans were prepared, students should have been consulted and included in planning for their own needs. Additionally, students should have been warned of the possibility of residence and dining options closing, rather than leaving students to scramble and resolve these critical questions of food and housing access in a week.

You’ve allowed faculty to work from home; you should extend the same courtesy to students—except that home, in this case, for us, is our residence halls. 

I’m also aware of a form you’ve been circulating for students who wish to stay. That form may very well work for some students, but the applications are already pouring in. The definition of “dire” is in question for how decisions will be made regarding who can stay. 

No doubt there will be a limited number of people allowed to remain, which begs the question – don’t you then have to keep the residence halls open, negating the point of this eviction? In processing these applications, how are you going to decide whose need is greater? Whose pain is worse? 

There’s a stigma to admitting to the realities of home life, even if only to a form. You’re forcing students to reveal painful, intimate details about themselves when they may not want to much less need to. Students will do this knowing their situations are going to be judged, picked apart and prodded, by people who simply don’t—and can’t—have all the information. At a fundamental level, the form assumes that we have a home to return to at all.

As for the directive to stay with “friends or family” for two months — I don’t think you understand, first of all, how difficult it is to find people able to provide housing and food for 60 days. Many students will feel obligated to pay for food or offer rent without having access to such funds. Besides the financial strain of such arrangements, social tensions can arise when living as a guest for just a week, let alone eight weeks. 

These solutions are not solutions, but bandages meant to disguise the damage being wrought by a problematic policy. Emory University is not fully invested in ethically supporting the physical and mental well-being of its students. You don’t want to deal with us, and in the process of deciding this, you failed to practice any sort of active communication, a technique this university lauds as vital to any work environment.

I have to believe it’s not too late for you to reconvene and reconsider. Allow students who wish to stay to do so, and permit students who need to stay home to do so without forcing them to come and clear out their dorms. For those who wish to stay, whose mental and emotional health are dependent on the university’s decisions, please allow them to stay.

This isn’t about letting us rise above the occasion. This isn’t about teaching us how to adapt to circumstance, or succeed against all odds, so please don’t insult us and tell us that you’re confident in our ability to do so. I’m sure many of us could, but it’s not necessary. 

Emory University has the potential to set an example. To prioritize us. To allow us to stay if we so choose. You’re a medical institution. For many of us, you are the safest option. Please don’t allow image to get in the way of that. Please reconsider, and let those who need to, those who want to, stay.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.