At around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10, the Case Western Reserve University community received the news that many were waiting for: In the face of COVID-19’s spread to Cuyahoga County, CWRU was moving to remote learning. Originally intended to last from March 18 to April 6, the university has now extended online classes through the rest of the semester, according to the university’s most recent update, received on Friday, March 13 from President Barbara Snyder and Provost Ben Vinson III. To allow faculty the time to prepare for remote classes, the university canceled classes on Monday, March 16, and Tuesday, March 17.
However, CWRU’s campus will not be completely devoid of people. Students in programs that include clinical activities may still have those obligations. Additionally, the university recognizes that some students face circumstances forcing them to remain on campus. Consequently, meals, cleaning and maintenance as well as health and counseling services will continue. Adult residence life staff will also organize small group activities intended to promote students’ physical and mental health. Some research on campus will also continue. However, the university banned all on-campus meetings of more than 25 people.
Because learning will take place solely off-campus for most students, the university also began working on a room and board refund policy. In the meantime, students can move out of their rooms until 5 p.m. on March 17. During this period, students will be able to check out of their rooms any time, night or day. This will not be the only period when students will be able to move out, according to University Housing, and will not be the deadline to receive a housing reimbursement. CWRU will continue to notify students of additional move-out periods in future communications. Furthermore, students will be allowed to stay on campus a bit longer if they cannot secure a means home immediately. However, the university does strongly recommend students leave if possible. For students where transportation constitutes a strong financial burden, the Student Emergency Fund can provide assistance by application.
Many aspects of this transition to online classes and restriction of students staying on campus remain unclear, and CWRU has been unable to comment on its COVID-19 response at this time.
CWRU wasn’t the first university to make this move. Pioneered by the University of Washington and Lake Washington Institute of Technology—both of which moved to remote learning on March 5—hundreds of college and university campuses are now effectively being closed, leaving hundreds of thousands of students to navigate online classes. CWRU’s closest peer institutions, for instance, their UAA rivals, have also moved to remote learning.
These campus closings and movements to online learning are intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday. In Ohio alone, the Ohio Department of Health estimates that approximately 100,000 people in the state are already infected with COVID-19. However, the number of people with the virus is uncertain because of a lack of widespread testing. On Friday, the director of the Ohio Department of Health did admit that the 100,000 person figure was a “guesstimate.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus spreads easily and sustainably within a community, called community spread, meaning attempts to eliminate large numbers of people living, working and congregating together, like students at colleges and universities, should damper COVID-19’s spread, putting less stress on the United States’ healthcare system.
Neither the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) or the Residence Hall Association (RHA), the two student organizations most directly associated with the university’s decision to go to remote classes and close the dorms, were involved in the decision-making for CWRU’s COVID-19 response.
According to RHA President Douglas Spizarny, these decisions came primarily from the CWRU’s top administrators.
“RHA was not involved in any of the University’s discussions regarding the decisions that were made,” said Spizarny. “As far as I have been made aware, the conversations were [between] high-level officials from the school and the local hospitals.”
Spizarny believes that a message from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine urging colleges and universities to implement remote classes also played a role in informing CWRU’s decision.
In fact, it seems that no students were involved in CWRU’s decision-making process. It is also unclear what role the faculty played at this time.
“USG—nor any students as far as I know—[was not] involved in the COVID-19 response decisions,” said USG President Marin Exler. “We were not involved in the decision to move to remote classes.”
Although not involved in the initial COVID-19 response, Exler is now in communication with university administrators about further actions and has generally been in favor of the university’s actions thus far.
“The [university’s] actions [so far] make sense, but I am particularly concerned about international students, students that are reliant on the school for housing and any students’ whose visas are contingent upon work/study,” Exler said. “However, I am confident [CWRU is] going to work with every student to navigate their own personal situations.”
USG is not solely relying on university administration to tackle student problems, though.
On Wednesday, Exler sent an email to the entire undergraduate student body describing resources students could access and the actions USG would be undertaking regarding advocacy for students impacted by the coronavirus. Specifically, Exler directed students facing an extreme financial burden in returning home to CWRU’s emergency fund, which can provide some assistance with these types of travel expenses. Additionally, a linked Google form asking students for their concerns regarding their current situation and what they needed to be relayed to the administration was also included. Only three hours after students received the email, USG had already cataloged two dozen responses to the Google form. Concerns about being unable to return home and missing essential school supplies were among the most common responses.
A further notification, received by students on Saturday, March 14, describes the additional measures USG has been undertaking. USG is organizing a student-managed emergency fund. Clubs and other student organizations have donated part of their funds to endow this entity. Additionally, USG plans to procure lockers for student groups without other places to store their items.
Overall, the response was a part of Exler’s philosophy regarding USG’s responsibilities to represent students to CWRU’s administration.
“We are going to try and be as helpful as possible to all students and connect everyone in a vulnerable situation to the person with the right person to help solve the problem,” said Exler. “We are entering uncharted territory so we are figuring it out as we go, but we are ready to help in whatever way possible.”
RHA also plans to continue working on behalf of CWRU’s students. Spizarny plans to continue following up with university administrators regarding housing reimbursements.
More broadly, student responses to the university’s measures have been varied. Although many students recognize the threat posed by the virus and the necessity of CWRU’s response, they still have many concerns.
Joshua Starost, a first-year student majoring in biology, shares a concern with many other CWRU students facing the transition to online classes.
“I am scared about the flow of my classes as I, personally, don’t really learn well outside of the physical class environment,” said Starost. “I just really hope I can still learn with online learning, as it’s definitely not for everyone.”
While actually doing well in online classes—a new experience for most students—is a major concern, some students face the even more fundamental problem of having limited or no access to the technology necessary to receive a remote education.
Another concern students have about the university’s response has been regarding its communications. Many students feel the emails they’ve been sent have been disjointed and confusing.
Third-year Spencer Schmidt is one of the many students frustrated with this communication scheme.
“I think the university’s communication has been all over the place since they started sending out emails last week, which is incredibly frustrating, but honestly not out of character for how they usually communicate with students,” said Schmidt. “They have taken drastic measures that don’t seem appropriate, but may have been better received if they had given students a heads-up about them before we all left for spring break, so we weren’t all scrambling [to get] back to CWRU to pack our books before we get kicked off campus.”
Like many other students, Schmidt returned home for spring break. Hailing from Oakland, CA, Schmidt endures a lengthy and expensive plane ride to go to and from CWRU to home. He will have to return to Cleveland to pick up his school supplies and clothes, and potentially pack up his room. Schmidt applied to remain on campus and is waiting on the university’s response.
Schmidt’s experience is not unique. As of 2018, the most recent year CWRU has published data for, approximately 6.5% of the university’s domestic student population came from California alone. International students and students from other faraway states are facing similar problems.
“Sure, one of the emails said we can apply for financial assistance,” said Schmidt. “But who knows how long that could take with everything going on and given how disorganized the university is?”
Schmidt’s statements highlight the uncertainty and instability felt by many of CWRU’s students. Not knowing where they’re going to live and how they’re going to continue their education are concerns preying on many students’ minds.
“Thanks to the university’s piecemeal communication,” said Schmidt. “I have no idea where I will even be living over the next few weeks.”