Colleges use empty dorms to house first responders, healthcare workers

Most U.S. college campuses are empty of students and nonessential workers. But that doesn’t mean activity there has ground to a halt. 

In the last few weeks, several institutions nationwide have begun preparing their dormitories for a new group of residents: healthcare workers, first responders and others on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Some are pulling long hours and need a place to rest, while others want to reduce the risk of infecting their families.

Colleges were among the first organizations to close their doors as the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, began spreading in the U.S. The cramped dorms and classrooms bringing together tens or even hundreds of students were seen as hotbeds for contagion. 

With classes moved online and most students gone from campus, colleges have room to spare.

“My buildings are already there, I’m already paying for the electricity, I’m already doing all that,” said Tim Collins, president of Walsh University, a private institution in Ohio. The university consolidated its remaining students into two residence halls, opening up space to house 144 healthcare workers.

Walsh isn’t the only university pooling resources for its surrounding community. Several institutions are making space available for housing and field hospitals. Some are doubling down on research or using fabrication labs to produce protective gear for frontline workers.

“Walsh University should be viewed as an asset to the local community,” Collins said. “If there’s something we can do, we should do it.”

‘A very specific need’

In Massachusetts, Tufts University President Anthony Monaco was an early advocate of repurposing college campuses to help fight the coronavirus. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe last month, he called on college and university leaders to lend their institutions’ resources to their communities. That includes residence halls.

The private university has made 1,600 beds available for local healthcare workers, medical patients and first responders, Monaco wrote in an email to Education Dive. However, he said it’s unlikely all will be used due to factors such as isolation protocols.

Like most other residential campuses, Tufts still has some students living there. To keep them separate from newcomers, who likely have a higher risk of exposure to the virus, officials divided the campus into zones.

The roughly 150 remaining students live in a dorm near their dining location. Across campus is one dorm for patients and another for medical personnel. Elsewhere on campus, the university opened several small apartment houses to first responders, including police, fire and ambulance workers. The latter includes those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, those who are awaiting test results and those who are healthy but can’t return home because they have vulnerable family members.

Organizations housing their workers on Tufts’ campus, meanwhile, are responsible for the care and management of those individuals. That includes food delivery, cleaning, waste removal, medical care and security.

At the University of New Haven, in Connecticut, first responders can use 300 beds across five residence halls. Soon after the university answered a call from the city of New Haven to host this group, it heard from other nearby municipalities with similar requests, said Doug Whiting, associate vice president for marketing and public relations at the private institution. In all, the university has promised space to workers from four municipalities.

For now, first responders are housed one to a unit in suite-style dorms with private bedrooms and bathrooms. If demand picks up, they’ll be housed two to a suite. It was a “very specific kind of need that the municipalities had,” Whiting said. 

The setup is similar to that of other institutions interviewed by Education Dive. Apartment-style housing is often used to help residents maintain social distancing. When traditional dorms are commissioned, residents are housed one per unit and peppered throughout the building to ensure only a handful of people share a bathroom. Residents also have limited access to the rest of the campus.

How long people stay varies. Whiting said his university has been housing individuals who are observing a 14-day isolation period and must remain in the suite during that time.

To get a spot at a campus offering housing, interested individuals typically go through the partner healthcare provider or public service agency, which in turn work with the university to claim space. 

In another case, the University of Alabama at Birmingham gave its affiliated medical center access to a residence hall that can house 200 healthcare workers. The center’s guest services and employee health departments are coordinating reservations and placements.

“That way they are able to house healthcare workers as needed without having to go through any systems, per se, that we would have,” said Patricia Martinez, the public university’s assistant vice president for student affairs. “They would have jurisdiction over the building.”

University of Alabama at Birmingham

The University of Alabama at Birmingham partnered with its medical center to offering housing for healthcare workers.

Mx. Granger. (2017). “UAB Hospital” [Photograph]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.


‘Don’t hesitate to say yes’

Officials interviewed for this story encouraged other institutions to make themselves available. “Don’t hesitate to say yes,” U of New Haven’s Whiting said. 

Patrick Heddleston, vice president for business affairs at the University of Mount Union, a private school in Ohio, said colleges should establish a memorandum of understanding with the organizations whose workers would be housed on campus outlining responsibilities. The university is providing 40 beds for healthcare workers.

Tufts’ Monaco pointed colleges to resources his institution developed to help colleges recommission their campuses for community support, such as by providing housing. 

They include a modeling tool local researchers developed to help colleges with excess capacity find hospitals in need.

Some higher ed associations have been serving a similar purpose. Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges (CCIC), said her organization surveyed its members last month to see which had dorm rooms available. It shared that information with state officials and other stakeholders, she told Education Dive in an email. 

“You put all these plans in place, you get these buildings ready — ultimately, you don’t want to use them.”

Jeff Novak

Director of university housing, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The effort has caused tension for some schools. 

Across the higher ed, institutions have faced backlash for how quickly students were asked to leave campus and for clearing dorms of their belongings. Some officials interviewed for this story said their schools had to pack up rooms to make space available to house frontline workers. 

Safety concerns from parents and the surrounding community are also a consideration. Mount Union emailed the campus and issued a public statement to explain the service it was offering and its reasons for helping out. 

Providing space doesn’t mean governments or healthcare agencies will take schools up on it. The state of Vermont canceled plans to put a quarantine site at Goddard College, saying it was no longer needed. However, the initial decision was met with resistance from some locals, according to local media reports.

Hoping they stay empty

Colleges aren’t looking to profit from this. CCIC’s Widness said housing is mostly being donated, with the possible exception of fees for cleaning and other maintenance services. 

In some cases, healthcare providers may reimburse institutions for services provided or for having to move students’ belongings out of the dorms, officials interviewed said. 

So far, relatively few people are using the facilities offered.

As of Wednesday, Walsh was hosting only a handful of healthcare workers. The university is focusing its efforts on housing workers from two local hospitals, which will cover the “nominal” fee for cleaning services, according to a university spokesperson. Guests not from those hospitals would pay the fee themselves. 

If more services are used, Walsh would need to discuss how to get additional support, Collins said. For instance, he noted, the university could also offer gymnasium space as a field hospital and parking lots to stage equipment if the National Guard is activated. 

But, he added, “the services we’re providing right now, to my mind, are negligible.”

Officials hope it stays that way. 

“You put all these plans in place, you get these buildings ready — ultimately, you don’t want to use them,” said Jeff Novak, director of university housing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The flagship partnered with its healthcare system and another local hospital to provide space for more than 200 workers. 

“A lot of work goes into what would be the best possible outcome of not having to use them.”

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