Following JMU’s Sept. 1 announcement that those living on campus would have to depart from their residence halls by Monday, Sept. 7, students began seeking exemptions to stay on campus despite the university’s movement toward “primarily online instruction” until at least Oct. 5.
Caitlyn Read, director of communications and university spokesperson, said the majority of students who applied for an exemption got approved to remain on campus. However, those who apply must cite a valid reason to stay.
“They need to have a valid reason related to health, or work, or academics, housing or food insecurity,” Read said. “We’re not just approving people because they want to stay.”
JMU received 3,172 requests to stay on campus and is currently housing 2,720 residents. Read said the disparity between the number of requests made and residents currently on campus is due to a number of those who applied changing their minds and deciding to leave campus, despite being approved.
The decision to send students home received backlash both online and on campus. A change.org petition was made, encouraging JMU to allow students to stay on campus until the spike in cases was managed. As of Sept. 9, the petition has reached over 10,000 signatures.
“We the undersigned, do respectfully petition JMU to allow on-campus students to remain in residence halls and learn online until JMU manages its current outbreak,” the petition said. “If JMU truly has a plan for student success, it will manage on-campus student health as a component of that success.”
Despite JMU’s efforts, Monya Biro, a freshman kinesiology major, said some JMU students may be taking advantage of the exemption system.
“I haven’t heard of anybody getting denied,” Biro said. “I have heard a lot from other people, like people making up reasons to stay so that they can hang out on campus and like, party with their friends and do whatever.”
Biro said the process of receiving an exemption was simple. She said she was asked how long she wanted to remain on campus and to explain her reason for not wanting to leave. She said she received an email saying she was approved the following day.
Read said that a number of factors went into the decision to allow students to apply to remain at JMU. She also said JMU is taking steps to ensure that students who may have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19 have the chance to complete their quarantine or isolation period prior to leaving campus.
“First and foremost is that we aren’t sending sick students home,” Read said. “So the students need to be able to stay. If there are students who are isolating or quarantining on campus, those folks need an avenue to formally be allowed to stay.”
Read also said the decision was made with consideration to the varying kinds of home lives students who live on campus may have.
“There may also be situations where students don’t have a home to go home to,” Read said. “JMU may be the most secure access to food and housing they’ve ever had. And so we’re not going to turn those students away.”
Abby Joyce, a freshman political science major, said she decided to seek an exemption because her parents both work with the public. She said she didn’t want her parents to potentially take the virus to work if she were mandated to return home.
“My dad’s an electrician and my mom is a pharmacist,” Joyce said. “So given that [in] college, a lot of germs can be spread easily, I thought the likelihood of having [COVID-19] was, at the end of the day, pretty high. And I didn’t want to risk giving that to my parents because they work with so many people in our community.”
Thirty-four of the original 143 isolation beds were available as of Sept. 9, according to The Breeze’s COVID-19 dashboard. Despite the high number of cases on campus and the apparent dwindling capacity of the university to isolate students, Read said JMU isn’t concerned about how it’ll handle its sick students.
Read explained that once a student finishes their stay in quarantine or isolation, the space is then made available once again for another individual to occupy. Read also said that the university has a “new option” to isolate students now that campus will be depopulated.
“As other students leave, that gives us a new option,” Read said. “So, maybe a student who needs to quarantine — now that their roommate has left — they may be able to do that in place. We may not have to worry about moving them out somewhere else. And so as students are rapidly depopulating … that actually means that we have a lot more flexibility in how we house quarantine and isolate students.”
Those living on campus face a higher degree of uncertainty than the rest of the JMU community, as their housing will be impacted by the university’s updated decision regarding online instruction in four weeks. Those who were approved for exemption may be able to remain on campus for as long as four weeks, but not all students are optimistic that much will change before the month is up.
“I predict that at four weeks, like, they’re going to be sending us home,” Biro said. “I don’t really have much hope that things are going to improve a lot. I think they’re just kind of saying the four weeks so that people don’t, like, withdraw or whatever, just to, like, hold on to their money."
Contact Connor Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.