American University President Sylvia Burwell sent an email to the student body on Dec. 29 that would change the start of the spring 2022 semester — a move to an online modality for the month of January.
The decision to move classes online was understandable, as coronavirus case numbers were rising nationwide and D.C. was experiencing a high rise in cases. What was not understandable was the University’s actions after this announcement. Since classes would be online, I hoped that the University would decrease housing prices, as students would not be living on campus. I also thought that the University would create a system for students to return to campus at the end of January in a safe and unified manner. I was wrong on both counts.
The email explained that the resident halls would open on schedule but encouraged students to stay at home, leaving space for the University to keep housing prices the same. The second email from Housing and Residence Life, which explained that students would be choosing their move-in date from Jan. 6 to Jan. 31, left nothing to question. Students now had to decide to stay at home and lose money or return to D.C., a community struggling with the coronavirus, to live in their pre-paid on-campus housing.
There are two main problems with this approach by the University. First, the responsibility to return to D.C. safely should not rest on the students and that responsibility should rest on the administration of the University. The COVID-19 variant, Omicron, hit the D.C. community hard with its current surge. AU has a duty to respect the community it resides in and care for its safety. By choosing to return to campus, students would expose themselves and the community to the virus that has already caused devastation.
The University also does not require COVID-19 testing for vaccinated students. Without a testing mandate, students are unlikely to frequently test themselves which leaves the possibility for asymptomatic cases to spread through campus and in the D.C. area.
Second, the University did not incentivize students to stay home, nor did they aid students in their decision. Instead, the University opened on-campus housing that students are forced to pay for regardless of their living situation.
Housing prices are not a small concession for the students either: For a traditional style hall at AU, the price of a double room ranges from $5,048 to $5,098 per semester, roughly four months. For one month, the estimated price is $1,000, all of which is wasted by a student who chooses to stay home for the month of January.
By opening the campus but offering a recommendation to stay home, the University shifted the responsibility of coronavirus safety to the students. The University gave both options, clearing them of blame or responsibility. Students had to decide what was more important: their safety and the safety of the D.C. community during a pandemic or using the housing they had already paid for.
AU had the opportunity to recognize the toll the recent surge of the coronavirus had on the D.C. community. AU had the opportunity to offer students a reduced housing price to stay home. Instead, the University chose to put the D.C. community in danger of more exposure by opening campus to students. Then, the University put the responsibility of returning to campus onto the students, cleansing itself of blame and making a quick buck on housing in the process.
Anna Gephart is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.