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As coronavirus closes campus, some college students left scrambling

Tufts University student Mark Beckwith packed up his room with his service dog, Matilda, at his side.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Joshua Torres, 19, an MIT freshman from California, fears going home.

His mother, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, has asthma. If he gets the coronavirus, he worries, she could be at even greater risk of becoming seriously ill. But MIT has rejected Torres’s plea to remain on campus after Tuesday, the university’s deadline for most undergraduates to leave the dormitories.

MIT, Torres said, “should show some compassion . . . give us the benefit of doubt.”

Coronavirus ended their school year. Students explain the frustrating 'great Harvard evacuation'
On Tuesday, Harvard moved all classes online. They also announced a requirement for students to vacate dorms. (Produced by: Kami Rieck and Tyler Dolph/Globe Correspondents)

Across Massachusetts, students have had their lives upturned by the coronavirus, as universities have begun clearing out residence halls to prevent campuses from becoming breeding grounds for the illness. On Thursday, Tufts announced that an undergraduate had tested positive for the virus and officials urged students to cancel any parties and gatherings.


The last-minute scramble for housing, pricey airline tickets, and storage space has been even more stressful and chaotic for low-income and first-generation students like Torres, as well as for students with complicated family situations and those who have come from abroad, students said.

Torres was among 50 students who protested on campus Thursday, angry about how MIT was determining which undergraduates would be allowed to remain in the dorms.

MIT’s rejection of dozens of students’ waiver applications Wednesday night sent many into panic. Students passed around their rejections, noting that even those from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand, and Europe have been told that they must find other housing. However, a student from war-torn Syria acknowledged that MIT granted granted an exemption.

Many international students said they are concerned that if they return to their home countries, the spreading virus and unpredictable travel bans may make it more difficult for them to return to the United States in the fall.

MIT has said it will will consider exemptions for international students with visa issues, for students who come from areas hard hit by the virus, and for those who do not have a safe home to go to. But how those waivers are applied on a case-by-case basis is unclear, students complained.


Ahmed, an MIT junior who declined to give his last name, said that while his immediate family lives in the Middle East, he has relatives in the United States and can stay with them. Other international students aren’t as lucky, he said, and MIT hasn’t been clear about whether students can get help paying for moving costs and booking last-minute, expensive tickets overseas.

“There’s a sense of frustration,” he said. “This is a terrible situation for everyone. . . . The backup plan is hope you have a friend in the country who will let you stay here."

MIT is still reviewing more than 600 requests for exemptions so far and has gotten through half of them, said spokesman Alfred Ironside.

So far, MIT has accepted 156 and rejected 150 requests, and more complicated cases are receiving a second review, he said.

“Everyone is working very hard on this, and there is among the staff involved an enormous care for students,” Ironside said.

Many students said they’ve been given little time to make major decisions about their education and life for the next few months and information from universities has sometimes been sparse.

“We did not receive adequate guidance,” said Maria, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who is from Brazil and here on a student visa. Her visa restricts how many online classes she can take and she wants to make sure she doesn’t run afoul of any immigration requirements. But, she said, she had to seek out that information herself.


Students said many have relied on informal networks to help. Tufts students put together a mutual aid, crowd-sourced fund and by Wednesday night had collected more than $5,000. A $600 airline voucher donated by a staff librarian helped one student buy a plane ticket home, according to an organizer of the effort.

At Harvard, news about how to access resources and financial help was slow to trickle out, leaving many students flustered. Primus, a campus group for first-generation students, mobilized and connected with alumni, raising $40,000 in a day to help cover the cost of transportation and storage, and got more than 900 offers from faculty and students to help those who needed housing or storage space, said Alejandra Iglesias, a junior and president of Primus.

“With this situation, we have come to the brutal realization that this school does not represent its students, but in times of crisis, our students, alumni, and faculty unite to form a community that is both supportive and beautiful,” Iglesias said. “It is a stressful and emotional time, as students have to continue with their school work, pack their entire belongings, figure out their plans before Sunday, and say goodbye to their friends. For seniors, it is their final goodbye.”


Universities said they are trying to balance the needs of students with public health concerns, but many were themselves caught off-guard, and left scrambling to make decisions and set up new policies on the fly. Some colleges have held mock commencements and graduation parades for seniors, who will likely not be returning to campus.

Not all universities are trying to empty out their dormitories. Northeastern University, which has many international students and those who have co-ops and internships, announced it would go online, but keep student housing open.

At Harvard, university officials acknowledged that the past few days have been chaotic. On Wednesday, in a message to students, Harvard dean Rakesh Khurana offered more details about the assistance the university would provide with airline tickets and moving expenses, flexibility with courses, and the pro-rating of room and board costs.

“I recognize how difficult the last 36 hours have been for all of you, and I sympathize with the frustration you are experiencing as you try to meet the challenges ahead,” Khurana said in his message.

Patrick Collins, a spokesman for Tufts, said in a statement that the coronavirus has created an “extraordinary” situation and officials are trying to work with students on options.

“While it is absolutely essential that all students who are able to leave the residence halls by the March 16 deadline do so, we also recognize that not all students will be able to immediately meet this requirement,” Collins said. “As always, our primary focus will be on the well-being of our students, and we will work closely with any student whose circumstances make it impossible to depart their on-campus residence at this time.”


But many students are still on tenterhooks, waiting to find out where they’ll be spending the last few weeks of the semester.

Mark Beckwith, a sophomore who lives in a Tufts-owned triple-decker in Somerville, hopes he won’t have to move out of his home. The university has urged students to leave the dorms if they can, but he has few alternatives. He may be able to crash at the Vermont home of a childhood friend, but Beckwith isn’t sure whether the Internet access will function well enough to take his classes online.

Beckwith, 49, who is on full financial aid and is part of an adult learners program that Tufts offers for older, undergraduate students, has asked for an exemption.

“It’s a challenge," he said. “I’m trying to stay composed.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.