Space Cadets

New Orleans Colleges and Universities rethink housing

Perspective Education

Administrators and universities have a challenging task this fall. They need to provide students with some semblance of the college experience families are expecting and paying for, while avoiding a COVID-19 outbreak that would force schools to take more extreme measures to fight the spread of the disease.


New Dorm Norms

So how are local schools managing this balancing act? To start, most have created as much social distance as possible in their housing facilities.

Xavier University, for instance, adopted a single occupancy model for university housing.

“Each student will live in a private bedroom,” said Lance Sumler, the school’s manager of communications and media relations. “Depending on the type of residence hall, some will share a community bathroom, while others may share a bathroom with one to three people.”

In addition to its four on-campus residence halls, the school also leased 200 beds at Privateer Place Apartments on the campus of the University of New Orleans, as well as more than 600 rooms at the Hilton Riverside Hotel. The arrangement with the Hilton serves a dual purpose since downtown hotel occupancy has been hovering at historic lows since the pandemic began.

Michael Strecker, the executive director of Tulane University public relations, said Tulane is also working to create as much space as possible.

“We have de-densified on-campus housing,” he said. “Twenty-nine percent of our students on campus are in single occupancy rooms and the maximum allowed is two students per room. Tulane is also offering single room occupancy at the Hyatt Place to students who request it.”

These efforts by administrators have to be matched by student diligence if plans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are going to work. That hasn’t been a problem so far at Dillard University, where the student population has “bought in” to the school’s efforts to create space, according to Dr. Roland Bullard, the school’s vice president of student success.

“We are really pleased with the maturity and the level of engagement by our students with regard to COVID-19 awareness so far,” he said. “They have really taken an active role in ensuring that they are holding each other accountable for the safety of the campus.”

Dillard’s traditional residence halls were converted to accommodate a single occupancy model, meaning that most students have their own single residence hall room to comply with social distancing. This decreases the campus housing bed count by more than 40%, which meant Dillard needed to increase the number of students who reside with its residential partner, Southern University New Orleans.

“This increased commuter population meant offering socially distanced shuttle rides and additional commuter spaces on campus,” said Bullard. “To date, our students have done their best to comply and make the best of a challenging situation.”

Bullard said he’s mostly worried about off-campus events.

“Students will really have to think clearly about their responsibility to the Dillard ‘bubble’ before they head out into the community,” he said. “We plan to do surveillance testing of some portion of our student body and workforce weekly. We hope this will help us monitor or mitigate outbreaks. To date, though, we are pleased with the way the Dillard community is tackling this challenge.”

Adam Norris, UNO’s chief communications officer, said the school has assigned 70% of its residence hall beds and is holding over 5% of bed spaces to use for potential isolation/quarantine spaces if needed. UNO, like most schools, requires face coverings and social distancing in public areas of residence halls. Guest rules are strict and there are limits on occupancy in public areas. Students who become ill must quarantine. Parking decal registration, room inventory inspections, floor meetings and other tasks are now completed online, as are social events led by residence assistants.

Similar rules are in effect at the University of Holy Cross, a school that’s uniquely well suited to offer a socially distant experience this year.

The 104-year-old Catholic school, located on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, is fortunate to have a residence hall that is only two years old and not yet at full capacity. This enables all resident students to have their own private rooms and private bathrooms.

“The UHC Residence Hall has a total of 72 units and 115 bedrooms and can accommodate up to 115 residents during usual times,” said Holy Cross President Dr. Stanton McNeely III. “Some student residents who were in the residence hall last semester say because of COVID-19 they are going to take a break this semester, but others are saying because of the nature of the college and the dorm being small and spacious, they have signed up for a room this coming semester.”

McNeely said the student population is prone to following safety protocols and added that the school’s in-person courses this fall are heavily in the areas of nursing and health sciences where best practices are the standard.


Doubles to Dorms

Only tangentially related to the COVID-19 crisis, another student housing issue is roiling Uptown New Orleans in particular this year.

Activists representing neighborhoods near Tulane and Loyola universities are battling developers who are buying residential houses and replacing them with buildings with lots of bedrooms to house lots of students. In some cases, small houses have been replaced with buildings that have more than a dozen individual bedrooms. This “doubles to dorms” trend is being driven by private equity firms looking to charge maximum rent in the growing private student housing industry.

Residents near the universities complain of parking issues, rising rents, less green space and water absorption, additional trash and noise, and permanent damage to the aesthetics of the neighborhoods.

“The D2D housing phenomenon, which came to New Orleans only last summer, is changing the university area at a rapid rate,” wrote lawyer and activist Keith Hardie in a report he presented to the City Planning Commission. “Before [a temporary zoning district went into effect], approximately one property a month was being converted to expensive dormitory-style housing. Some of this housing had been lower-density student housing, but other properties had provided housing to local homeowners and renters for decades. Student housing has been around for years, but the high density of the D2Ds is far beyond previous expectations.”


Dine and Dash

Dining is another major challenge for the planners of campus life during the pandemic. This fall, schools are limiting the number of people allowed in common dining areas, eliminating self-serve food options (goodbye, all-you-can-eat buffets), increasing cleaning and sanitation efforts, providing sanitizer stations, and adding barriers between staff and students.

“Our campus dining service has trained all of its staff with proper COVID-19 food handling guidelines,” said Xavier’s Sumler. “Staff will wear masks and gloves at all times. We have reduced the capacity in the dining rooms and offered more ‘grab and go’ options. There are staff roaming the dining hall whose sole job is to clean and disinfect tables between use.”

Tulane’s Dining Services, meanwhile, continues to offer a variety of to-go and packaged meals from retail locations across campus, as well as seated, all-you-care-to-eat service in its dining halls, said Strecker. “In addition to our existing dining venues, a temporary structure has been added on the Berger Family Lawn to provide extra serving and socially distanced seating space.”

Strecker said the school’s dining services department is launching a new online ordering app that will allow students to order meals for pick-up or on-campus delivery.

One important note for night owls in need of a caffeine boost: Food and drink are prohibited under current operating protocols and the PJ’s Coffee in the lobby of Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library is closed for the duration of fall semester.


‘Meet Students Where They Are’

All the precautions leave you wondering how students will be able to have a satisfying college experience. The answer is … very carefully, according to LaVerne Toombs in the Office of Community Outreach and University Advancement at Southern University at New Orleans.

“When encouraging students to do anything out of the norm for them they tend to do the opposite of what is being asked of them,” she said. “At SUNO Housing we use the method of ‘meeting the student where they are,’ which allows us to have a better relationship with our residential community when enforcing new measures for safety. We want students to have the college experience, just in a safer way than before. This is new for all of us.”