Containing COVID-19: Stanford could have (and should have) done better

Opinion by Stephanie Gady
May 6, 2020, 8:54 p.m.

“To our Stanford community,

I am writing to share some further changes we need to make in our university operations as a result of further developments regarding the spread of COVID-19. Included are significant changes for our undergraduates who currently remain on campus, most of whom now will not be able to stay on campus for spring break and spring quarter.

I know how very difficult and deeply disappointing these steps will be for many students. We profoundly regret having to arrive at this place, which will mean further disruption for you. We are taking these new actions to support your health and safety, and to align our operations with these quickly changing developments.”

This was the introduction to an email that I and thousands of other Stanford students received on Friday, March 13. Within seconds of hearing a friend read the email aloud, I felt tears stream down my face with the realization that Stanford University — the supposed “family” I’d held so dear to my heart and worked for so many years to be a part of — was abandoning me. With the realization that my housing, food, friends and life were being taken from me, I sobbed as I bought a plane ticket back to my house — not home — across the country with an overwhelming sense of dread. I screamed as I rapidly threw all the belongings from my closet, desk and dressers into Home Depot boxes, knowing that I wouldn’t have the money to fly back and pack my belongings at a later date. I cried as I desperately scoured community spreadsheets, texting 10, 20, 50 people just trying to get a ride to the airport the next morning. I left campus with a heavy heart and a dreadfully clear thought — Stanford University was not the family I thought it was. 

My experience was nowhere near unique, or even surprising — for Stanford’s first-generation students, low- and middle-income students, students with vulnerable family members living at home or students who come from an otherwise less-than-ideal home environment, Stanford’s eviction notice was just that: an eviction. Though it’s no secret that a disproportionately high percentage of Stanford’s student body is very well-off, Stanford chose to leave many students stranded with only small travel stipends, community resource spreadsheets and 5 days to plan for the foreseeable future. As a student without a stable home environment, a sudden eviction notice came out of the blue, considering Stanford’s earlier promise that any student who felt they needed to stay on campus for spring quarter would be allowed to. This decision seemed largely the result of two factors: Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place restrictions, and the precedent of eviction set by other elite universities across the country. In the same email, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote:

We learned late today of the first positive COVID-19 test for an undergraduate student in our community… our teams are currently doing contact tracing and are working to inform and provide guidance to all close contacts of the individual as soon as possible.

Along with the federal declaration of a national emergency today, Santa Clara County issued an order enacting new restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our area… the order prohibits gatherings of more than 100 people and includes new restrictions… which apply to cafeterias as well as other spaces, [and] will make it very difficult to sustain our undergraduate dining operations at scale for an extended period of time. 

Tessier-Lavigne’s email was worded so as not to indicate that providing food and housing for all students who needed it in spring quarter would be impossible — because it wouldn’t be. The Stanford name wields enormous power across the globe, a fact acknowledged by every student who revels in putting “Stanford University” in bold at the top of their resume. Stanford had a 27.7 billion dollar endowment as of October 2019, and it carries a huge amount of influence over Santa Clara County and the entire Bay Area. Even if it truly was impossible to allow all students to stay who wanted to, Stanford could have extended existing housing stipends to students who were not permitted to stay at Stanford to allow them to live near (but still away from) campus.

Would it have been difficult for Stanford to continue to provide basic housing and meal requirements for all — not just some — of the students who needed it most? Absolutely. But would it have been impossible? Probably not.

Tessier-Lavigne’s message goes on to read:

For spring break and spring quarter, we will only be able to provide on-campus undergraduate housing and dining for a very limited number of students – those who have no other option than to be here. We will be prioritizing international students who cannot go home; students who have known severe health or safety risks; and students who are homeless.

Stanford made it clear that it would in fact be able to provide these services for some students — despite Santa Clara County’s shelter-in-place guidelines. In a statement to The Daily, University spokesperson E.J. Miranda noted that the University “urged undergraduate students to leave the campus for spring break and the spring quarter if they could” and, for students who said they had to stay, “examined their individual circumstances,” prioritizing international students, homeless students and those with severe health risks. Yet it is hard to believe that Stanford was very understanding of students’ individual home circumstances that might not have been on an official record. The same statement went on to read, “the number of students permitted to remain on campus were based on these prioritized criteria [international students who could not go home; students with known severe health or safety risks; and students who are homeless].” 

These criteria were undoubtedly important and were rightfully prioritized first. However, the statement made no mention of Santa Clara County limiting the exact number of students that could have remained on campus, leading to the conclusion that the county likely did not give Stanford a specific number of students that could stay on campus. The University likely could have allowed more students to stay. This would have ensured that students with at-risk family members at home, financial strains brought on by the pandemic, or otherwise less-than-optimal circumstances would have had a safe play to stay, instead of leaving them stranded.

As a student who falls in this category, I believe I speak for many when I say it was terrifying trying to search for alternatives to going back home, especially on short notice. I desperately wanted to stay in the Bay through spring and summer, yet was unable to do anything but book a one-way ticket back to an unstable living environment. Small stipends were given to some students (myself included) based on financial aid, but remaining close to Stanford would have been very difficult given the notoriously high Bay Area rent. I received a partial housing stipend, but I was expected to pay upwards of $3,000 toward my living costs for the quarter — an expense I could no longer afford without a source of income. After my summer internship was canceled due to COVID-19, I had to move back home in order to save money for the upcoming school year, even if it meant potentially exposing my at-risk family members to the virus. Though the University was very generous in providing stipends for students on full financial aid, many lower-middle or middle-income students didn’t fit the criteria to either remain on campus or receive extra University aid, and were in turn forced off campus without an opportunity to appeal. 

In addition to leaving hundreds of students without a safe place to call home, Stanford likely sent active COVID-19 cases out across the U.S. and the globe, with little regard as to how students would receive medical care upon falling ill with COVID-19. As of Feb. 28, Santa Clara County had multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19. Though the county did not enact shelter-in-place measures until weeks later, the infectiousness of the disease and the fact that many COVID-19 patients would likely be treated at or near Stanford should have been an early signal that, if Stanford truly had no other choice but to evict the majority of the undergraduate student body, it should have done so immediately upon learning of community spread within Santa Clara County. By waiting until there was one confirmed case on campus, the University allowed an opportunity for the virus to spread throughout the Stanford community.

Because COVID-19 is so contagious, with each infected person infecting 2-3 others, the “first positive coronavirus case” mentioned in the email meant that the virus had already begun to run its course. One confirmed case would likely have meant around 4 infected students. In the 5 days between Stanford’s notice of eviction to when students actually left campus, this number could have risen to the hundreds, due to Stanford’s self-described “highly communal nature of undergraduate residential and dining spaces.” Thus, by giving students no other choice but to return home, Stanford likely sent students with COVID-19 all across the country, back into communities that might not have been prepared for tackling the disease or into households with elderly or otherwise high-risk family members. 

President Tessier-Lavigne’s words that read “For spring break and spring quarter, we will only be able to provide on-campus undergraduate housing and dining [for students] who have no other option than to be here” were wrong.

What the statement should have read? “For spring break and spring quarter, we will only provide on-campus undergraduate housing and dining [for students] who the University has no other option but to take care of.”

This may seem a harsh criticism of an otherwise astounding institution — Stanford did do more than most universities by providing students with travel stipends and allowing a very small amount to remain on campus. However, the lack of willingness to provide students with choice and failure to recognize the importance of overall public health is something that simply cannot be ignored. Determining whether a student needs to remain on campus is not nearly as simple as checking which countries the U.S. has outbound flights to, or who is officially listed as being housing-insecure. And, by waiting until after COVID-19 had already appeared at Stanford to enact such a no-tolerance eviction, the University ensured that a number of students would be infected, and that those same students could very likely bring COVID-19 with them into vulnerable households and communities upon being forced to leave campus. 

Though the future ahead is uncertain, we will eventually overcome this pandemic. We will get through this as a community rather than as a university. During this time of crisis, it’s more important than ever that we continue to pressure Stanford to do the right thing, and to support each other however possible, even when Stanford won’t. 

Contact Stephanie Gady at sgady ‘at’

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