Evicting students in the name of social distancing is unsafe

Recently, the University of Alberta has evicted their student residents. Wikimedia Commmons

The act causes pain and terror for the most vulnerable

By Katherine DeCoste, Contributor

In light of the rapidly developing COVID-19 pandemic, universities across Canada and the globe are shutting down. Closing buildings and shifting to remote learning in an effort to uphold standards of social distancing, the latest tactic is to evict students from on-campus housing, where shared facilities like bathrooms and kitchens are hotbeds for infectious disease.

The University of Alberta has given students in major residences like Lister Centre only four days to vacate their homes, a well-intentioned but short-sighted decision that does little to support its most vulnerable students in these uncertain times.

Although dorms make social distancing and self-isolation particularly difficult, ordering thousands of students to leave its nine residences in less than a week is a recipe for chaos and anxiety. As transit services like air and bus lines limit available routes, travel has become more and more difficult. The challenge of finding storage, transportation home, and packing over the course of a weekend is overwhelming for students already faced with the transition to online learning and the mental health challenges that accompany social distancing.

For students whose parents are able to help them pack and travel home, where they will be safe and supported, the decision may seem reasonable, simply the next step in preventing the spread of novel coronavirus in Canada. But this is a privilege that isn’t the reality for many students.

For those who have come to the U of A from out-of-province, eviction will necessitate air or possibly bus travel, increasing the chance of an asymptomatic carrier passing on the virus, and forcing students to self-isolate for up to two weeks upon arriving home. For international students, leaving the country can be even more risky, as more and more nations close their borders and those here on temporary visas may be unable to return.

Possibly even more worrying is the thought of students who move away to university to escape unsafe home situations, where caregivers could be abusive or controlling. For some, travelling home is not a relief in stressful times, but an added stressor, or even danger. And for many, returning home may not even be an option. These students could be forced into homelessness without the time to make alternate permanent residence arrangements (such as signing a lease to rent a property, many of which begin on May 1 for those renting to students).

The university has stated that international students, out-of-province students, and those with “exceptional circumstances” can apply to remain in residence longer, but even these students will be mandated to relocate from dorm-style residences to more private apartment living. The difficulty of packing and moving will remain even for those the university does deem in need of housing. The lack of detail on the university webpage regarding who will be eligible for such exceptions is troubling, as the new policy homogenizes student situations without considering the unique challenges faced by many.

Social distancing is crucial to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Canada, but the university would serve its students better by investing further in cleaning services, limiting dining hall capacity, and encouraging those who are able to vacate residence, rather than evicting its student tenants. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but by failing to consider its most vulnerable student tenants, the university has only exacerbated an already critical situation.

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