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Welcome to college in New York. Now quarantine

One incoming college freshman had to map out a last-minute road trip from California to New York, choosing a path through states with low coronavirus case counts. A parent was forced to reschedule flights three times in three weeks for another student. A second parent searched for hours to find a hotel room for her child to quarantine in, less than eight days before arrival.

The coronavirus has disrupted nearly every facet of student life at colleges: Students are arriving to campus toting tests showing they are virus-free, dorms have been reconfigured, and new codes of conduct have been put in place.

But nowhere has the disruption for students been more pronounced than in New York, where a mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement for some out-of-state travelers has created havoc for students from those states.

There are now 33 states under New York’s mandatory quarantine, but the list changes each week, which has forced some college students to abandon long-standing travel plans and quickly find accommodations to serve out the quarantine.

“We were just shellshocked,” said Tanja Chevalier, the parent of a Syracuse University student who was planning to leave for campus from Illinois in mid-August. But when their state was added to New York’s travel advisory late last month, the family had to scramble.

The school had set aside quarantine housing on campus, but the deadline to sign up had passed.

“I’m like, I don’t even know what moves to make,” Chevalier said. “Should we just sit and wait to see if there’s a solution? Is it going to fall from the sky? Because I don’t know how we’re going to figure it out otherwise.”

In New York, more than 59,000 private-college students come from states under the travel advisory, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

New York has allowed individual colleges to decide whether to reopen; many have opted to offer a mix of in-person and remote classes, opening campuses and dormitories. Other schools, often citing the myriad challenges triggered by the quarantine mandate, have gone fully virtual — a move that may seem prescient after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved all of its classes online on Monday after outbreaks on campus.

The chaos and uncertainty were cited in the decision last week by Columbia University and Barnard College to conduct all of their classes online — even as some of their out-of-state students had already begun quarantines.

Ana Sofia Rico and her mother arrived in New York on Thursday night from California, one of the states on the quarantine list. They had spent nearly $2,000 on hotels, flights and other expenses for the quarantine, only to find out a day later that Columbia, where Rico is a first-year student, was canceling in-person classes.

“It’s heartbreaking when you expect so much more from your school,” Rico said.

Across the tristate area, colleges have had to quickly adapt to the need to quarantine hundreds, or at times thousands, of students arriving from hot-spot states.

Syracuse, Stony Brook University in New York and Montclair State University in New Jersey are among those that are setting aside on-campus quarantine living spaces for freshmen, although in some cases, without accommodations for returning students.

Other schools like the University at Buffalo and Skidmore College, both in New York, have partnered with hotels to offer students free rooms. Still, those spaces have not always matched students’ needs.

Alexsandra Walton, whose family hails from California, said she canceled, booked and again canceled flights, unable to make firm plans while her son’s school was still finalizing its own. She worried about her son, Justin, a freshman at New York University, who was concerned about the toll that spending 14 days alone in a quarantine dorm could take.

“You start thinking about, ‘Can he really handle this on his own?’ and I started panicking,” Walton said. “That’s already on top of this hurt that I’m not going to be able to move him in a way like I had dreamed all these years.”

Rather than staying in NYU’s on-campus space, Justin Walton is quarantining with family in the region.

As the number of states subject to the travel restrictions has surged from eight in late June to about two-thirds of the country, colleges have struggled to set aside sufficient on-campus quarantine space for the students who require it.

Ithaca College has barred students from areas under the travel advisory from moving onto its upstate New York campus altogether as long as their states remain on the list. Shirley Collado, Ithaca’s president, said it was not feasible to provide single rooms, meal deliveries and laundry services for the more than 600 students who would need to quarantine.

Affordability, she added, was another factor in the school’s decision. While some universities have made their quarantine accommodations free, others have tacked on costs — sometimes at $1,000 — for staying in on-campus spaces, or directed people to discounted but often still pricey hotels, causing additional stress for some families.

“I’m already borrowing half of the tuition,” said Ali Zarabi, whose daughter, a first-year student at NYU, is from rural Virginia, another state on the quarantine list. “So the idea of renting something for two weeks if we couldn’t make family arrangements for quarantine work would be extremely burdensome.”

Mary Beth Labate, the president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, said members of the association spoke with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office about whether the quarantine guidelines could be adapted to better fit how college students typically move onto campus. But those conversations never took hold.

The challenges in meeting those requirements have also led some schools to backtrack on their previous offerings to students. Cornell University, for example, faced pushback from many families when the school announced in late July that on-campus quarantine rooms could not be provided for all students, after previously guaranteeing them.

Liam Monahan, an incoming student at the school, said the reversal came about a week before he was scheduled to move into a dorm. He and his parents were wrapping up a move from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., and Cornell’s reversal further complicated the process, he said.

Since starting the semester online in his family’s new home would have been difficult, because it has less physical space, he rushed to secure a hotel room in Brooklyn. “None of this has been what I expected, even more so than quarantining at all was,” he said.

For now, many students continue to prepare for an adjusted college experience in the fall, even after the quarantine is up, as they make their way to New York.

Mike Matukewicz acknowledged that the “total scramble” to get his son, who will be a freshman at St. John’s University, to New York from Nebraska three weeks earlier than anticipated was stressful. But he said he was taking an optimistic view on the new normal students are navigating.

“His dream since he was in sixth grade was to be in New York,” Matukewicz said. “And that’s finally going to be a reality. It’ll be a struggle at first, but we’ll get him there.”

As for Chevalier, the situation improved, but not without complications. Syracuse opened up more spaces for on-campus quarantine, which her daughter, Claire, was able to secure. The catch: She now had five days to pack, travel from Illinois and arrive for her move-in date.

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