Marisa Peryer

As undergraduates scrambled to find accommodations away from campus this past week, changing guidelines from administrators led to confusion about who is eligible to stay in Yale’s residential colleges. 

On Tuesday, University President Peter Salovey announced that all classes would take place online at least until April 5. While he urged students to return home no later than March 15, he noted that some “undergraduates consider New Haven to be their home or cannot leave the university at this time.”

“If you are a student living on campus without a suitable place to stay through April 5, please let your residential college head and dean know, and we will continue to support you on campus with dining and health services, even as you will need to participate in classes remotely,” Yale College Dean Marvin Chun stated in an email following Salovey’s announcement. “It matters greatly to me that if you are in the very difficult position of not having a safe place to go to off campus, you know that we will take care of you.”

But another email from Chun on Thursday introduced limits on which students would be allowed to stay on campus. Sent just past midnight, the email told undergraduates that only students with “exceptional circumstances” — such as those from Level 3 countries or emancipated from their parents — would be allowed to remain in on-campus housing.

When asked why the University altered its guidelines in a matter of two days, University spokesperson Karen Peart said the information the University shares with students “reflect[s] the rapidly evolving nature of the situation.”

“Our decisions might shift in response to any changes in guidance from the World Health Organization, federal and state government, CDC, public health authorities and Yale experts,” Peart wrote on Sunday. “We will do our best to make decisions known as soon as they are made, and will continue to communicate with the Yale community as the situation evolves. We recognize that this is having a great impact on our students and that some do not have suitable housing beyond campus.”

Other communication discrepancies arose between the messages sent to students by the heads of college. While messages sent directly after Salovey’s and Chun’s announcements generally matched across all 14 colleges, the News has so far confirmed that only two heads of college informed their students on Friday that even if Yale reopened for the rest of the semester, undergraduates would have the option of finishing the semester remotely. 

Salovey announced the decision to suspend in-person classes on the same day as Harvard University. When Harvard instructed its students on Tuesday morning to not return to campus after spring break, it faced strong backlash from those who interpreted the statement as evicting students with five days’ notice.

Still, Peart clarified that Yale’s sudden change in tune with Chun’s first and second emails was not influenced by the response to Harvard’s announcement.

“The timing and substance of our decisions and communications are unique to how the pandemic is impacting Yale and New Haven. We are focused on how this is affecting our own campus population,” Peart wrote. “As other schools have done when communicating, we have taken heed of advice from the CDC, World Health Organization, federal and state government and our own public health experts.”

Still, according to one student who wished to remain anonymous to keep private their status as a first-generation, low-income student, Yale has “bungled this scenario,” and “kept [students] in the dark,” while other schools were “actively discussing” coronavirus concerns with their own students. The student added that it would have been “very much preferable” to know about possible school closures before spring break.

“The breakdown in communication between University leadership, the YCDO and residential college leadership has never been more apparent,” the student wrote to the News.

The student added that Yale should “open up stronger lines of communication with the residential college leadership (who students are most likely to turn to) and the YCDO so that all the kinks we are already noticing — uncertainty over housing, coming back and work among them — can get ironed out as fast as possible.”

In an interview with the News, Emmet Shell ’22, who is staying at his friend’s home in Pennsylvania to complete the semester, also pointed to the confusion created by administrators’ changing messages. While the University’s Tuesday email conveyed that students without suitable housing would be supported on campus, Thursday’s email quickly rolled back on this sentiment, Shell said.

In response to an inquiry about the University’s plan for communications, Peart told the News on Friday that the University is making its best efforts to assist students in need.

“Each student’s situation is unique, so our overall guidelines might not apply in every instance,” Peart wrote. “Students are encouraged to contact their residential college heads and deans to ask about housing and resources that are available. The information we share with students reflects the rapidly evolving nature of the situation.”

She added that the University has been providing on-campus food and housing for approximately 200 students who remain on campus, and that, “for students on financial aid who do have a suitable place to go, the University is paying for their travel expenses.”

While Shell said that he understands that administrators are reasonably struggling to deliver quick answers, he said he wished the emails had been more consistent and that the University would reach out to those who are struggling.

Shell added that Yale is only paying for one leg of his trip, and that he does not have access to University-sponsored food or housing, both of which the University covers under full financial aid during the regular term. Further, Shell’s home in rural Maine does not have Wi-Fi to support more than one device at a time, and since his mother works remotely, using Zoom would be nearly impossible for Shell.

In a Friday email to the News, Peart referred to Yale’s new policy to pay for food and housing for those who must remain on campus and to cover travel expenses for students on financial aid.

“Students should contact their head of college office for more information on obtaining housing and resources,” Peart wrote. “The University will make every effort to assist students in need. We will be providing refunds for room and board after we determine what the prorated amount should be. In addition, we are ensuring continuity of campus employment (pay) this term while students are away.”

Still, Shell applauded alumni, many of whom have aided current undergraduates through a widely circulated spreadsheet in which students can note their financial, transportation and housing needs.

Unlike Shell, Charlotte Wakefield ’23 will remain on campus after working with administrators within Grace Hopper College. She said she had “no idea” where she would have gone otherwise, as her parents banned her from their home when she publicly came out as transgender.

She also emphasized the possible strains of the new measures on students’ mental health.

“Something I think that should also be noted is the mental burden this places on lots of students,” Wakefield said. “This event has reinforced feelings of loneliness I’ve had since being kicked out by my parents, as I now stick out in the Yale community as a student without a home to go to in a time of crisis like this. I know [my experience is] similar for a lot of other queer students.”

In an email to the News, Wakefield said that refunding at least 25 percent of room and board is something she would consider “obligatory,” and that the University should pay for housing costs for students who needed to relocate but could not return home. According to Chun’s FAQs, room and board charges will be “prorated in a few weeks once the timeline for the remainder of the semester is finalized.” Most students will see refunds on their student accounts, according to the FAQ page.

In the case of student jobs, the University quickly made steps to meet student demands within days of the campus’ closure. In response to Yale’s Tuesday announcement, Students Unite Now — a student activist group that lobbies for an end to the student income contribution — began a petition calling for the University to waive the student effort by offering paid leave for student jobs. On Friday, the University posted updates to its FAQs page, saying that students whose jobs cannot be done remotely will be paid for their regular hours. According to Peart, the University’s decision was not made in reaction to the SUN petition.

Still, SUN reiterated its usual demands in a Friday evening Facebook post, acknowledging the University’s “commendable action,” but still pushing Yale to abolish the SIC completely.

Paige Swanson ’20 is also bunking with friends, writing in an email to the News that staying with her parents is not an option. Her residential college denied her request for funding for a rental car in order to move her belongings to her friend’s house and explained that the college could only cover the cost of planes and trains. As of Sunday night, she has not been able to secure any financial or material support from the University.

“Being a second-semester senior, it is incredibly stressful to think that we may not be back at Yale for the foreseeable future,” Swanson wrote.

In an email to the News on Thursday, Chun wrote that for students on financial aid who are following the University’s directions to leave campus, Yale can cover the cost of a car rental, “as long as it’s reasonable.”

Swanson also told the News in email on Thursday that one of her greatest concerns was knowing how her Yale Health plan would be affected by the closure of campus. On Sunday, Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin wrote in a University-wide email that Yale Health is expanding its network of providers for chronic conditions and prenatal and labor and delivery care for students outside of Connecticut. He added that emergency and urgent care remains “covered at 100% worldwide for students” on the Yale Health plan, and that students remaining in Connecticut can still seek care at Yale Health at 55 Lock St.

Still, Swanson told the News in an email Sunday night that the exact offerings of the student health plan remain uncertain.

“The statement put out definitely is not a worst-case scenario and it does seem that Yale will be willing to work with students,” Swanson wrote. “However, it does still seem unclear to me exactly what coverage will look like and what ‘determining next steps’ will look like in the event that medical care is needed outside of Connecticut.”

As of Tuesday evening, at least 5,587 people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19.

Olivia Tucker contributed reporting. 

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu