Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on theeaglecoronavirusproject.com, a separate website created by Eagle staff at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Articles from that website have been migrated to The Eagle’s main site and backdated with the dates they were originally published in order to allow readers to access them more easily.
Freshman Shira Cohen isn’t taking online classes from home like many of her peers. Instead, she’s attending them remotely from a hotel in Northwest D.C., along with dozens of other freshmen.
Cohen lives at the Marriott Residence Inn near Thomas Circle on one of two floors booked out by approximately 100 freshmen, most hailing from American University and a few from George Washington University, according to Dr. David Reitman, who is the medical director for AU’s Student Health Center.
“This would not have worked without other parents and other students who were independent enough to take responsibility for their health and other needs,” said Michelle Anchors, an AU parent of a freshman living in D.C.
Hundreds of University freshmen have flooded the District, Maryland and Virginia since the University closed its campus to students and shifted to an entirely remote semester, according to Reitman and Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw.
Anchors played a key role in facilitating the migration of freshmen to the District by founding the Facebook group AU Residence Inn DC, which quickly attracted a cohort of parents planning to send their first-year students to live in the Inn for the fall semester. She called the effort to provide select students with an alternative living option a “labor of love.”
After the University canceled on-campus housing for fall 2020, Cohen sought out alternative housing options that would still provide her some semblance of the freshman college experience. Cohen’s mother discovered Anchor’s private Facebook group near the end of summer, and the family promptly decided to reserve a room at the Inn.
The group offered a rate of $69 a day for a single or double queen bed studio, according to three freshmen living in the Inn. Cohen decided to room with a fellow AU freshman she met on social media, cutting the cost in half.
Anchors said that parents did not want the hotel arrangement to replicate a dormitory experience. They hoped to provide a safe and socially enriching experience for their children.
However, Anchors was vague about what defined a safe experience, calling that an individual decision to be made by students and their families.
“I really feel strongly that this option should not be glorified,” Anchors said. “We really very much respect the very challenging circumstances that AU has navigated exceedingly well.”
The University’s administration didn’t share the same level of optimism that first-year parents held, pointing out the health and safety risks. During a webinar regarding fall updates, Aw advised parents not to send first-year students to live in alternative housing, as previously reported by The American Agora.
“We know enough about student development and we know enough about the maturation of students that this idea of students coming to Washington, not knowing the city, ... can be incredibly detrimental on a lot of levels,” Aw said.
For Reitman, the most concerning part of freshman life in a hotel is the lack of figurative guardrails.
During a typical year, first-year students have immediate access to a broad range of resources, from their floor residential assistant to the community director of their residence hall. Their transition from home to college is purposely padded in a way that promotes life outside of academics and provides sturdy support when students inevitably face challenges, Reitman said.
Freshmen living in hotels do not have many of those resources to lean on if they start to feel homesick, socially isolated or overworked. Reitman said that during the first few months of a normal year, freshmen make up 30 to 40 percent of Student Health Center visits.
“Going into October ... they really start to struggle,” Reitman said. “This is when you start to see ... students not doing well academically because they’re not doing well emotionally and then they’re up all night, so they’re not doing well physically.”
Cohen, on the other hand, appreciates the freedom from any sort of oversight that living in a hotel has provided.
“We’ve all worked very well with each other. There hasn’t been a single positive case of COVID-19, and we haven’t gotten in any sort of trouble,” Cohen said.
While Reitman sympathizes with students wanting to move out of their homes, he said he wonders if students are doing so safely. Living in close proximity during a pandemic is feasible if done correctly, but students at the Inn take varying approaches to social distancing.
Joel Olivares, a freshman in the School of International Service, occasionally invites friends over, but he prefers to explore the city and mingle with others outdoors.
“I don’t allow like more than two people to come into my room and socialize,” Olivares said. “If we’re going to do a group of five or more, it’s outdoor activities only.”
Other AU freshmen have less stringent social policies. Kyle Sullivan, a freshman in the Kogod School of Business, said that on weekends, rooms can fill with as few as five and as many as ten people without masks. However, Sullivan noted that students at the hotel are all fairly aware of and concerned with COVID-19.
“We’re all pretty concerned about it and it’s the general rule … that if you have symptoms just go and get tested,” he said. “It’s better safe than sorry, especially since we’re around each other pretty much 24/7.”
The D.C. Department of Health’s Phase Two reopening guidance states that “outdoor activities are preferred over indoor” for private gatherings, and people should wear masks and practice social distancing. Socializing in close quarters with limited ventilation significantly increases the risk of spreading COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Residence Inn did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the living situations of first-year students.
Anchors and other parents were well aware of the potential health risks that sending their students to the District posed. After Aw’s statement, some decided it wasn’t worth it. Anchors said that students and parents who committed to living in the Inn shared a common understanding of appropriate contact, though she wouldn’t specify what those understandings were.
“Each student, each family, each background, each present set of circumstances is unique,” she said. “It’s unique as the DNA of each student and therefore the choices that they make with respect to how to handle their education in this unusual environment is also going to be unique.”
So far, the students at the Residence Inn have avoided a coronavirus outbreak and managed to build connections with each other, those interviewed said. However, with cases on the rise in D.C. and the extension of the state of emergency, the future of their education is uncertain. George Washington University’s decision to remain mostly online for the upcoming spring semester sent freshmen at the Inn scrambling this week to secure housing contingencies for the spring semester in the event that AU follows suit and remains online.
Cohen is currently considering multiple backup options for spring living, from an extended stay at the Inn to a semester in Florida with her grandparents. Despite the challenges this year has presented, she said she retains a positive attitude.
“I know that this isn’t going to last forever and that eventually, I am going to be attending in-person classes,” Cohen said. “I’m really glad that I get to have somewhat of a college experience, make friends and learn my own independence.”