As colleges unveil plans for a fall semester during the coronavirus pandemic, some students have decided to put their education on pause and take a voluntary leave of absence for the semester or the entire academic year while they wait for college life to return to normal.
Partially open, reduced-capacity campuses and operating models that place some or all courses online do not meet these students' expectations; some worry they will get a lower standard of education that could leave them ill prepared for future employment. But taking an official leave at some colleges, even for students in “good academic standing,” can be complicated -- for the students and the institutions. Students can lose certain privileges upon return from leave, and college officials worry residence halls and other on-campus facilities could be overwhelmed if too many students on leave are allowed to return at the same time, especially if the pandemic continues to require colleges to operate lower-capacity dorms.
Students who choose to take voluntary leave at Columbia College, Columbia University’s undergraduate college in New York City, for example, will lose their guaranteed on-campus housing for the rest of the time they attend the college. At the University of Chicago, students who take leave are prohibited from participating in the on-campus housing lottery system upon their re-enrollment unless a fellow student that has on-campus housing specifically requests a them as a roommate, according to the university’s most recently published room-selection guide.
Julia Attie, a senior and organizer for UChicago Student Action, a student advocacy group, said in an email that the consequences of taking a leave are applied “despite UChicago’s promise that housing is guaranteed all four years.”
A group of Columbia students is lobbying the administration to temporarily waive penalties for taking voluntary leave due to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. As of July 24, more than 1,800 students had signed a petition demanding the college make an exception to the current policy for students facing challenges due to the pandemic or who simply want to take leave because of it.
Columbia’s plan for the fall semester involves a mix of in-person, online and hybrid classes over three semesters -- fall 2020, spring 2021 and summer 2021. The university is inviting first- and second-year students to live on campus this fall, while third- and fourth-year students will return in the spring, according to a July 7 email to students from Columbia College dean James Valentini. The student petition contends that the mixed model “compromises all students’ quality of learning” and “is dangerously inequitable” for students with income, food or housing insecurity; those with difficult home lives or poor internet connection; and those who live in a different time zone than the college.
“While students in such circumstances can apply to stay on-campus for the full year, this puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19,” the petition says. “This forces these disadvantaged students into an unfair, dangerous, and inequitable choice.”
Michael Gao, a rising junior and economics major, helped to organize the petition and said the threat of losing guaranteed on-campus housing is especially problematic at Columbia because of the “insanely high” housing prices in New York City.
“These restrictions would deter first-generation, low-income students from taking voluntary leaves, as they can’t risk paying sky-high New York City rents without guaranteed housing,” said an opinion piece co-authored by Gao and published in the student-run Columbia Daily Spectator. “Yet they are simultaneously the students most disadvantaged by online classes.”
Gao decided to take leave this fall and spend the semester in a new job conducting campaign data analysis. He's unsure whether he will be able to get on-campus housing upon his return because students without guaranteed housing are put at the bottom of the college’s housing lottery system and notified two weeks before classes start whether there is a space for them.
Gao called the situation “maddening.” He believes students should be able to choose whether they want to continue learning completely online in the fall without being penalized.
Fatima Begum, a rising sophomore at Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, said in an email that she is unsure about taking a leave of absence because of the risk of losing on-campus housing. But she also doesn’t want to risk contracting COVID-19 by living on campus this fall or commuting to in-person classes from Brooklyn, where she lives with her parents.
“A lot of students majoring in something STEM-related are not a huge fan of virtual classes because our majors often require us to do much more hands-on work than simply attending lectures and taking exams,” she wrote. “We should not have to choose between risking COVID [infection] to pursue our studies to the fullest extent, or hurt our studies just to save ourselves from COVID.”
Columbia College administrators said in a July 14 email to student organizers that if all students who took voluntary leave were guaranteed housing upon their return, the college would not be able to meet incoming students’ need for on-campus housing. The college has “historically been able to accommodate most students who need housing upon their return,” said the email, signed by Lisa Hollibaugh, dean of academic affairs, and Cristen Kromm, dean of undergraduate student life for the college and engineering school.
“We truly empathize with the many students who feel that taking a voluntary leave would be an appropriate choice for them as they consider their personal and academic situations and goals,” Hollibaugh and Kromm wrote. “If we were to guarantee the future housing needs of all students taking voluntary leaves, we could not uphold our underlying commitment to incoming classes and their four-year residential experience, because of our limited housing. We know this creates uncertainty for students who would like to consider a leave this upcoming year.”
Gao said this explanation is “a little bit valid” but he still wants the college to provide guaranteed housing to students who take leave.
“Maybe normally there’s a case to be made for people not taking voluntary leave,” Gao said. “But in coronavirus, it’s reasonable for students to say, ‘We are not getting what we signed up for, we want to take leave.’ … Columbia tries to treat us like adults. It seems like the most adult decision to make would be to not continue school for one semester when it’s not worth it.”
Students voiced similar sentiments back in March when the spread of the virus intensified and classes went almost entirely online. Some students organized to pressure their colleges to reduce their tuition payments, arguing that an online education was not worth the same cost as in-person instruction. Others filed and joined class action lawsuits seeking tuition refunds and partial repayments of housing fees and other charges because the spring 2020 semester was cut short and was far from the academic and on-campus living experience promised -- and expected.
Ray George, a rising sophomore studying earth and oceanographic science at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., was upset to miss out on field study in an introductory oceanography course when classes moved online in the spring. He said he and his classmates would have taken boats out in Harpswell Sound and the Lower Kennebec River near Brunswick and learned how to test water samples and analyze phytoplankton growth.
Only first-year students will be allowed on Bowdoin's campus this fall. They will be required to take a writing seminar in person, but all other classes will be administered online, according to the college’s FAQ webpage for students.
George decided to take a leave of absence in the fall and plans on returning in spring 2021. He doesn't want to miss out on further hands-on research opportunities that may be available by then.
“I’m living in Maine right now near Bowdoin, and I drive by the science building and see the microscopes, everything just sitting there,” George said. “It makes me upset that people are paying for this, and they’re just sitting there. No one is using them.”
Administrators at his private liberal arts college were initially uncertain the college would be able to readmit students who took leave when they wanted to come back, Janet Lohmann, senior vice president and dean of student affairs, explained in a May 21 email message to students. The college was uncertain at the time of the number of students who would be on leave. There was potential for an overwhelming influx of students returning at the same time, Lohmann said.
“Our hope is, of course, to accommodate every student’s preferred timing for readmission, but at this time, Bowdoin cannot guarantee that a student on personal leave will be readmitted to the College for the semester they request,” Lohmann wrote.
Doug Cook, director of college and media relations at Bowdoin, confirmed in an email that all the 165 students who were granted voluntary leaves of absence will be allowed to return at the time they requested. Bowdoin’s student affairs office had conversations with about 290 students in the span of three weeks inquiring about leaves of absence in the fall, Cook wrote.
George said returning to Bowdoin next spring, when hopefully life on campus will be back to normal, may allow him to get more out of campus facilities and resources, such as lab equipment and counseling services, than if he returned in the fall. The switch to remote learning this spring too was limiting, he said.
"I want that hands-on experience," George said. "There are so many on-campus resources that we get that are included in tuition money … I definitely found that I was able to connect with my professors on a meaningful level in the online format, but I think that we are not receiving a lot resources."