A North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood dorm room at the University of California, San Diego / Photo courtesy of UCSD

Living in close quarters with other students is a quintessential part of the college experience. And for universities eager to reopen this year, it’ll be a major challenge.

Some schools are already looking to reduce higher-density housing options.

When college students were forced to clear campuses in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some left behind units that housed as many as four people per room, with bathroom spaces shared among entire building wings. Some Greek life chapter houses at San Diego State University, for example, sleep as many as 40 students. Even off campus, students regularly squeeze upward up eight people into a single-family home.

So, basically, the exact opposite of social distancing.

These are all factors local campuses will be forced to reconsider as they hustle to develop housing and academic plans for the fall 2020 semester, a term that will look nothing like higher education has ever looked before.

At the University of California, San Diego, that will mean testing every student, faculty and staff member for COVID-19 — 65,000 people — on a monthly basis to maintain in-person instruction. The University of San Diego, with a much smaller student population of about 5,600, plans to bring students on campus in the fall while housing all freshmen and sophomores, just as it usually does.

Meanwhile, SDSU and the other 22 California State University campuses, including Cal State San Marcos, will be holding most classes virtually. It’s not yet clear whether SDSU intends to regularly test students who continue to live and study on campus, but the university is expected to release more details about that and student housing within the next few weeks.

UCSD is the only local campus with the resources to offer on-campus testing services for students due to its expansive medical infrastructure.

Testing will help identify sick patients who can then be pulled out of classrooms, but it won’t stop the spread of the virus.

“You are going to have people who are coming to the campus or the living space, some from low-prevalence areas and some from high-prevalence areas, and mixing those people together presents a risk,” said Michael Huey, retired president of the American College Health Association and a member of the organization’s COVID-19 task force.

A one-size-fits-all approach is out of the question when it comes to tackling campus housing during the pandemic, Huey said, because the prevalence of the virus isn’t the same in every community. It depends on a school’s size and ability to offer testing and other resources, on top of following San Diego County guidelines for social distancing. Campuses also tend to offer a variety of living options, some which are riskier than others.

At both USD and UCSD, administrators say students will only be assigned to single- or double-occupancy rooms, thus eliminating higher-density options with as many as three or four people per room. Both campuses will continue to offer a variety of living models, including traditional residence halls and apartment-style spaces, which provide greater division.

USD has also vowed to start the semester earlier, on Aug. 17, so it can end early. That way, students will not return to campus after Thanksgiving break and potentially bring the virus back with them.

Given SDSU and Cal State San Marcos will be mostly online in the fall, campus housing will be limited to students participating in programs that require in-person learning or who have been granted a special exception, CSU Senior Director of Public Affairs Michael Uhlenkamp said.

In a recent report, the American College Health Association recommends that universities strive for less student housing density during the pandemic.

The association also advocates for private rooms and bathrooms, whenever possible, as well as face coverings in common spaces, better cleaning, expansive health education efforts, restrictions on social activities and limited visitors. Campuses will also need to have a plan in place for how they will isolate students in case of an infection or exposure to the virus. And if that happens, universities need to be prepared to send all students home, like they did in March.

Although switching to lower-density housing models may seem like an obvious option for campuses moving forward with in-person learning, there’s a reason why residence halls didn’t operate like this in the first place. The switch could threaten a university’s short-term revenue stream and as well as its long-term goals.

UCSD’s 2018 Long Range Development Plan aims to offer affordable campus housing for 65 percent of the eligible student population by 2035 (the campus currently has the capacity to house about 40 percent).

The funding for those housing projects has already been set aside, and the plan includes single- and double-occupancy rooms. The reduction of density collectively on campus will equate to about 2,000 fewer beds. But UCSD spokeswoman Leslie Sepuka said these loses will be offset by the fall opening of the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, which will open up approximately the same number of beds.

Lower-density models could also interfere with requirements, like the one at USD, that all freshmen and sophomores live in campus housing. When everything is open and functioning, the campus has about 2,600 beds, but now students can only be assigned one or two people per room. It’s not clear where everyone is going to fit.

“There certainly is a concern that there is too much demand for the supply that we can offer in housing, but we’re also trying to work on some opportunities that we can’t house that will assist them in being here in San Diego,” said Brandon McCreary, USD’s director of residential administration.

SDSU requires all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus if they’re not local to the San Diego area, although it is currently unclear when residence halls will fill again and what kind of impact the pandemic will have on housing density once that occurs.

At SDSU, one of the largest universities in the CSU system, that process will look a lot different than on a smaller campus like CSU San Marcos, which has less than half of SDSU’s enrollment.

“We’re trying to minimize the spread of COVID, but it presents more challenges if you have a campus with a larger population of students that come from other places,” Uhlenkamp said.

As universities shift to lower-density models and housing becomes harder to find, these same schools can expect that a certain number of students will opt to live off campus, where administrators have no mechanism for enforcing social distancing.

SDSU’s infamous “mini-dorm” culture is an example of this. Students will squeeze into homes that are more conducive to partying and often more affordable than on-campus options.

“I think it’s a real problem and something that the university cannot necessarily control,” Huey said.

Whether universities are even interested in bringing high density back to residence halls after the pandemic ends is an open question, and the changes don’t necessarily stop with student housing. Administrators will have to turn their attention to lecture halls, theaters, football games and communal dining spaces.

“I think there are likely to be changes and not only in-residence life, but in all ways the university accomplishes its mission,” Huey said.

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