Senior legal studies major Petra Ehlers took a test for coronavirus Tuesday afternoon. After experiencing a persistent fever and cough, she suspected she might have been exposed to the virus while deep cleaning Turtle Creek Mall, where she works as a janitor. The day before, she was worried about where she was going to live for the remainder of the spring semester.
On Monday, the Southern Miss Department of Housing and Residence Life emailed residents notifying them that they have until Friday at 8:59 a.m. to pick up essential belongings from their residence halls. Students had to provide documentation and fill out a COVID-19 access form if they needed to remain on campus by noon Thursday.
Ehlers said she filled out the form while her boss sent an email to the housing department Tuesday. However, she received an email from the Department of Housing and Residence Life on Wednesday denying her request due to insufficient documentation. According to the email, she had until 5 p.m. Thursday to submit a new signed letter or work schedule from her boss.
If Ehlers’ form was denied again, she would have to quit her job and move in with her 60-year-old mother in Alabama.
“I almost went home for Spring Break. I did not even go home for Spring Break after not seeing her for eight months because I did not want to put her at risk,” Ehlers said.
On Thursday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 485 COVID-19 cases. Sixteen of those cases have been reported in Forrest County. So far, Southern Miss is not aware of any students who have the virus, according to executive director of housing and residence life Scott Blackwell, Ph.D.
Blackwell said nearly 2,800 students lived on campus in the spring, but that many American and international residents left during Spring Break with no plans to return to campus.
Blackwell said given the importance of social distancing, students should not feel rushed to retrieve all of their belongings from the residence halls. The department is considering future pick up dates in April and May.
“We will roll out a process for students to be able to return to Hattiesburg, get access to their hall and collect their personal belongings. But the last thing we want to do is give the impression that there’s a hurry to do this. And most importantly, you know, we need to get information to the students who are waiting for a response as to whether or not they’re going to be allowed to return to campus housing,” Blackwell said.
On March 9, the university suspended all domestic and international university-sponsored travel to reduce “USM’s contribution to the potential spread of infection to other areas.” Students, faculty and staff were also asked to register their personal, domestic travel Spring Break plans with the university.
Sierra Wood, senior public relations major from Tallahassee, Florida, did not.
“At the time of the announcement, it felt unnecessary,” Wood said. “Obviously, things have changed dramatically in a short period of time, and I can see that was a mistake. However, I still do not think that the process is effective for spread prevention. While it may be helpful to the university legally, there is no way for them to know, based solely on your city, whether you have or have not come into contact with the virus.”
Prior to receiving the housing department’s email, Wood planned on living in her sorority house for the remainder of the semester to spend time with her friends and have access to campus Wi-Fi. With an unstable connection at home, she’s unsure where she will get her assignments done.
Wood said reading the email was shocking and stressful, especially since she had to quickly plan when to make the six-hour drive back to campus. Because she’s unsure of when she will return, she said she will pick up any items that she can fit in her car along with essentials like medications and toiletries.
“Prior to this announcement, I had been holding on to a sliver of hope that my Southern Miss story wasn’t over yet and that I would be able to see my friends and say goodbye. This is truly heartbreaking for me because now I have to return home to Florida, and I don’t know when I will see anyone again,” Wood said.
While some out of state students had to plan when to make the drive home, international students like Bianca Montiel are wondering where they will go due to federal travel restrictions.
Blackwell said the housing department has been communicating with the International Student and Scholars Office regularly.
“Certainly, international students’ situations, in some respects, can be more complicated than domestic students because of the international nature of the crisis,” he said.
Montiel, a Southern Miss resident and freshman athletic training major from Argentina, said dealing with stress has been hard. She’s been talking to her family every day, often multiple times, to talk about the coronavirus’ impact in the United States and Argentina.
“I’m worried, not just for me, but for all my family back home and all the friends I made here,” she said. “Also, I’m a part of the cross country and track and field teams, and our season is already canceled. That plus the fact that I cannot go home and now we have to deal with the online classes—sometimes it seems like everything is going bad.”
After spending all of Monday night talking to her roommate, who is also an international student, to discuss housing options, Montiel said they’re still uncertain.
Students and parents have been asking about refunds to their housing and meal plans. In a March 16 update, university officials said the IHL office is looking for guidance from the United States Department of Education regarding partial refunds, but have not said anything definitive since then.
Senior public relations major Makayla Crane has been reaching out to the university about receiving a refund for her meal plan in their Facebook comments. If the school doesn’t issue a statement when classes resume Monday, she said she plans on reaching out to the school directly.
Crane said it’s not fair for students to not get what they’re paying for.
“I work my butt off and live paycheck to paycheck to pay for schools and to pay my bills. Not to be dramatic, but I can’t just lose my money,” she said.
Blackwell said Southern Miss will communicate details on all COVID-19 related updates as soon as they become available.
“We’re being forced to think about lots of issues that we have never had to think about. Previous emergencies that USM has had to respond to, for example, tropical storms and tornadoes, weather related closings, we’ve responded appropriately. But in those kinds of situations. You know when the emergency passed, we got to fixing whatever needed to be fixed. In the case of coronavirus and the COVID-19 spread, we don’t know at this time when it’s going to be completely safe for students. . . . But we want our students’ safety to be the most important aspect of our response,” Blackwell said.
Ehlers, after emailing her proper documentation, had her housing request approved Thursday morning. As she waits for her coronavirus test results, she is quarantined in her dorm room.
“I am relieved I won’t be driving three hours possibly spreading the virus,” she said.
Students who cannot pick up their essential belongings by Friday at 9 a.m. can request an appointment using the Appointment Express Form.
For coronavirus updates from the university, visit www.usm.edu/covid-19/index.php.
March 28 Update: Ehlers’ test came back negative.