Classes may be online and policies confusing but college students are itching to get as close to local campuses as they can

By Katherine Brubaker

On-campus housing may not be an option for most students this semester, but that’s not stopping them from signing a lease

Entering the fall semester of college is always an exciting time for new beginnings. This year’s unprecedented pandemic events make it particularly interesting for students. Now versed in the art of taking online courses, many college students are now struggling with the housing situations of their respective universities.

Despite the school year rapidly approaching, university housing policies have shifted continuously throughout the summer, which has left many students confused and unprepared. To better understand their individual plights, I spoke to students at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in Westwood, and Westchester’s Loyola Marymount University and Otis College of Art and Design.

At UCLA, the administration had initially planned to have 15% to 20% of fall courses in- person or in a hybrid format. But with changing health and safety protocols from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the university recently reduced this in-person and hybrid instruction to courses that provide training for students preparing for essential workforce jobs, and which cannot be conducted remotely. These include classes in health and medicine, emergency services, social work, the sciences and engineering.

In terms of on-campus housing, it will be limited to students with no alternative housing options and whose current housing does not provide a safe and appropriate environment, student-athletes participating in on-campus training, and students enrolled in in-person or hybrid courses who do not have alternative local housing options. In July, UCLA announced that all dorm rooms would be single occupancy.

Sophia Walsh, a rising junior at UCLA from California, has chosen to get off-campus housing this year. Walsh will be living in an apartment with five other roommates. “Housing is really expensive in LA. It’s hard to find something decent in Westwood for a good price,” explained Walsh. She will be living in a room with two others, and each will be paying $900.

Walsh believes the university shouldn’t be bringing anyone back with cases still on the rise. “I would not be going back if it wasn’t for my lease, and I don’t think anyone should really have classes in person, at least like right now,” she said.

In July, ICE announced changes to the Student & Exchange Visitor Program, which endangered nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 visa students at schools operating entirely online due to the pandemic. Affected students would not have been permitted to take a fully online course load, remain in the United States, receive visas issued by the State Department, or enter the U.S. by Customs and Border Protection.

This policy was retracted after lawsuits were filed by some universities, including Harvard, USC and MIT.

Though the ICE policy was not put into action, Bhavna Sreekumar, a rising junior at UCLA from Dubai, still worries about her precarious position as an international student during an ongoing pandemic. “With the ICE policy there was a lot of confusion, but I’m still hoping that I’ll be able to return for the fall. But because I’m international, there’s always a sense of uncertainty and little clarity. International policy is changing constantly, and I don’t know if flights are going to be happening. Hopefully, I’m going to be back because I signed a lease for next year,” said Sreekumar.

Many of Sreekumar’s international friends don’t plan on returning to the U.S. this fall. “They don’t want to take the risk. I’m one of the few that wants to come back, even if that means putting myself at risk. The time difference is another big factor for me. Taking online classes over here has really messed up my sleep schedule,” said Sreekumar.

Loyola Marymount University’s plan for on-campus housing was “fluid” earlier this summer due to uncertainty about state and county reopening guidelines, but it is now limited and prioritizing students with urgent need. “In compliance with public health restrictions, we can only accommodate students with the most urgent housing needs in our reduced housing plan,” wrote Kristin Agostoni, Assistant Director of Media Relations & Communications, in an email. “The university has strongly recommended students reconsider housing plans, and remain home if possible this fall.”

As of now, priority for housing will be given to undergraduate students requiring on-campus disability accommodations, students who are housing insecure and international students who are currently in the U.S. without off-campus housing options. “Classes at LMU this fall will be primarily, and for most students exclusively, delivered remotely,” wrote Agostoni.

Like other college students in the LA area, Connor Rose, a rising sophomore at LMU, has decided to get an apartment with friends from school. “I got together with some friends, and we thought it would be good to find off-campus housing because we didn’t expect to be given on-campus housing. The nice thing about LA is that there are a lot of apartments,” said Rose.

Rose understands why his university’s housing policies have been uncertain and fluid until relatively recently. “I think at times it can be frustrating, but I get it. It’s one of those things where you really have to be in a bubble to not understand that it’s not only you frustrated, but the administration is also frustrated,” he said, “LMU has been really cautious and not willing to take any risks. They are being smart about not having any concrete, confirmed plans in place since LA County is continuously changing their guidelines.”

Zarii Arri is an incoming freshman at Otis College of Art and Design. Originally planning to live on campus for her first semester, Arri will be living at home due to the university’s new guidelines, which include the closure of the school’s first-year residence hall for now, with some affiliate apartment options operating at reduced capacity. “Usually there are two people to a room, and then four people in one common place at Otis. They were going to do one person to a room in order to properly social distance, and some of the classes would be online, and a lot of the studio art classes would be in person. However, they just notified us that the campus is still closed and that at least until Aug. 31 — when classes start — all classes will be online,” said Arri.

There’s still a chance that Arri will live on campus at some point during the semester. “It’s really confusing because they told us that there is still a chance that we could live on campus, it’s just not going to be when school starts, it might be in the middle of the semester. I am completely in the dark about how this is going to go,” said Arri. Otis’ Vice President of Campus Life Laura Kiralla confirmed that if the LA County Department of Public Health greenlights in-person instruction at college and universities Otis’ on-campus residence hall would reopen mid-semester and students would have the option of moving into affiliate housing if space is available.

When it comes to college housing in 2020, students have been faced with vague and changing plans. Though frustrating, this approach makes sense with the fluctuating health conditions of the state.

From my conversations with these college students, one thing was made very clear: even though most classes are online, the goal this semester is to get out of mom and dad’s house!

“A lot of us [students] started looking for off-campus housing, mostly so we can keep some semblance of independence from our parents,” said Rose. “The pandemic has really gutted the college experience and fast-tracked the ultimatum of living like an adult or being stuck in what feels like extended high school.”

Argonaut Editor Christina Campodonico contributed to this story.