Universities: Open Your Dorms and Dining Halls

Universities: Open Your Dorms and Dining Halls

Universities: Open Your Dorms and Dining Halls

Some campuses have already stepped up. Students, faculty, and alumni need to pressure the rest to play their part.


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The places that slowed the spread of Covid-19 made two efforts the United States is not making: testing everyone and offering quarantine centers. In Wuhan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, they didn’t just tell people to self-quarantine in their own houses; they provided places for at-risk people to live temporarily.

Clearly, we need more testing. But to flatten the curve and save lives, we also need more spaces for quarantining. Some of those beds may come from requisitioned hotels. And many of those beds should come from universities and colleges across the country proactively offering space for frontline workers and people in non-critical conditions to shelter separately from non-infected people.

There have been over 312,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 8,400 deaths nationwide, with New York facing 114,000-plus cases alone. By the time this is published, more than 5,000 New Yorkers will have died.

Right now, there are five basic needs for beds, either set up in large spaces, or in dormitories.

First, as field hospitals: Facilities are already overburdened, and we haven’t even reached the peak. Cities and states are hunting for additional beds, because after hospital mergers and related “bed shed,” the United States has over half a million fewer beds nationally than we did in the 1970s.

Second: for sick people who do not need hospitalization but should not be at home because of the nature of their living arrangements. Growing evidence suggests that mild or asymptomatic patients giving the virus to family members is a major source of spread. In South Korea, which was initially beset with a rash of cases and then rapidly flattened the curve, there are dedicated facilities for people with mild symptoms.

Third (relatedly): for people who have tested positive, but are asymptomatic and live with others.

Fourth: for the millions of people in high-risk jobs who have not been tested: Delivery workers, health care workers, and other essential service providers often live in multigenerational households, and must be offered alternative housing to help protect their families and slow the spread. In particular, those who live with health care workers and emergency responders are at high risk of getting infected; New York City hospital leaders are reporting that a third of their staff is out sick because of taxing work shifts and possible exposure to Covid-19 and other communicable diseases.

Finally: for people who are currently homeless. Homeless shelters are already overcrowded, which is unsafe both for the homeless and for the community itself.

Some people who fall within these categories are fortunate enough to have options for quarantine, but that isn’t true for everyone. Some 20 percent of Americans live in multigenerational homes, and those numbers are higher for Asian, Hispanic, and black families. Many of those homes have a single bathroom, kitchen–living room combinations, and other circumstances that easily contribute to community spread. There is substantial evidence that much of the virus’s spread occurs at home.

Needs will vary state to state and community to community. State governments can use legal authority to requisition and convert hotel and university facilities for quarantine shelters. And they should do so—seeing universities not just as extensions of field hospitals but as places for quarantine. At the same time, educational institutions should not wait for requests. By offering shelter proactively, they would expand the options available to cities and states and give them a far greater range of places to imagine quarantines and field hospitals. University spaces are now sitting vacant, as they have sent students, faculty, and nonessential staff home to combat the virus’s spread. These spaces can save lives.

Already, states and cities are using parking spaces, athletic arenas, conference and dining halls, and other facilities as staging areas for nearby hospitals.

The president of Tufts, Dr. Anthony Monaco, offered up Tufts facilities as hospitals began to overflow a month ago, and called on others to do the same in an op-ed in the Boston Globe. Middlebury, Columbia, NYU, University of Virginia, Yale, The University of New Haven, George Washington, Post University, Olivet Nazarene, the University of Michigan, Sacred Heart, Vanderbilt and Fordham have all made their facilities and/or dormitories available for hospital beds or health care worker housing. University of Southern Maine and Suffolk University in Boston have opened facilities to the homeless.

In California, New York, and Oregon and at the University of Nebraska, state universities are planning for the use of their spaces.

We now call on all universities and colleges nationwide to open their facilities, voluntarily, so every city, hospital, and state can use the spaces they need.

Two concerns have been raised when colleges consider providing space during this crisis. First, some students left possessions in their dorms amid unexpected campus closures. This is solvable; alert residents of their plans, send essential items home to students, and temporarily store all other possessions to make room for temporary shelters for others.

Others say the spaces are not designed for hospitalizations. While this is true, we need institutions to work with state governments during the pandemic to assess how best to convert dormitories into hospital beds or shelters for workers and at-risk populations. With both the questions of infrastructure and possessions, we cannot ignore the hard truth: Our neighbors’ lives are at stake. While every community with a college or university may have different needs for Covid-19 response, we know that our educational institutions have space. We should plan how best to use it.

For people who want something to do right now that makes a difference, pressure the universities that you have ties to, are in your community, or that you have attended. Universities listen to their alumni and need to be responsive to their community’s public demands.

If you doubt the power of public pressure, the Yale story is instructive. When the New Haven mayor first asked for housing for asymptomatic firefighters, Yale’s president initially said they couldn’t do it. However, the University of New Haven president saw the need and immediately, enthusiastically agreed. After the New Haven Register and the Yale Daily News reported the story, Yale announced that it had 300 beds for first responders.

Educational institutions are public institutions, even those that are technically within the private sector. It isn’t just that they get public funding and special tax status—they have played critical roles in some of the county’s most difficult moments. During World War II, faculty and students enlisted, of course, but colleges also repurposed courses and coordinated closely with the government to provide what was needed. Seven of Yale’s 10 residential colleges became Army and Navy Housing, and the Air Force established an aviation school. When the University of Illinois offered up its facilities and staff services in support of the war, the Board of Trustees declared, “It is the first concern of the University of Illinois to help win the war…. Everything else is secondary, even the much talked of long-time educational program so essential for making a durable peace to which every university is dedicated.”

Universities represent a critical source of public power and strength separate from the state, but also from the marketplace. Today, they must prove their public commitment by offering shelter to those in need.

We hope every university puts out a public announcement offering its spaces for whatever is needed, and soon—quarantine of a single infected person can save hundreds of lives. And if all our universities make all their facilities available, it could save thousands, or even tens of thousands of lives.

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