By MacKenzie Brady
Washington College’s housing policies are currently under pressure by students hoping the College will reconsider their housing policy. This pressure rises after a Feb. 16 email announced that WC is “a four-year residential college and [has] a four-year residency requirement” and that all students are expected “to return to on-campus housing for fall 2021.”
A four-year residency requirement means that a vast majority of WC students — with very few exceptions — would have to live in on-campus housing for the entirety of their college careers.
“Not only do students who live on-campus tend to do better academically than students who commute, they also get the opportunity to fully participate in living learning environments that foster long-term connections with peers, engagement with campus activities and events, and easy access to campus resources,” the Residency Requirements page on the WC website said.
According to that webpage, exemptions prioritize students whose permanent, primary residence is within 30 miles of the College and do not require crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and those students who have turned 22 by the beginning of the academic year, according to Feyerherm.
“Where the issues come in…[is] what exactly does [four-year residency] mean for students? How many [students must stay on campus]? What percentage is that? How do you determine that? And know that some students will always have to, for whatever reason, not live on campus and what reasons are sort of exemptible,” Vice President of Student Affairs Sarah Feyerherm said.
According to Feyerherm, the situation around COVID-19 will inform how WC addresses housing and exemptions for the fall.
“Knowing that we don’t know what things are going to be like in the fall, we have to keep planning and just be prepared to shift slightly,” she said.
Student Affairs will be sending out a survey gauging students’ intentions to get vaccinated, if they are available, and will evaluate guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention about whether or not it makes sense to put more than one person into a room.
Current planning revolves around in-person instruction, which will require all students to return to campus or Chestertown. An official policy about in-person instruction and housing has not been created or released.
“If we are primarily in-person, just like before COVID-19, there is not an option to attend WC virtually. I wouldn’t say that decision has definitely been made, but if we go back to pre-pandemic operations as an in-person institution, all those other things have to fall in place…but we don’t know if those waivers are going to be extended,” Feyerherm said.
It is likely that there will still need to be housing to accommodate students who must quarantine and isolate, which will impact the number of rooms that will be available to students.
Not only will COVID-19 affect which dorms are available to students, but which facilities within them as well.
“My guess is that we will return to [common areas and shared kitchen spaces] with new rules and restrictions,” Feyerherm said, indicating students will likely have access to these spaces but with mandatory mask-wearing and reduced occupancy to mitigate risk.
Feyerherm said that while students living off campus still must apply, what has changed is how students are selected to live off campus.
“In a normal year going forward, our plan is to restrict off-campus approvals to a very small group of students who both require it for whatever reasons — financial, academic, you know, accommodation — as well as those simply requesting it because they prefer it, which has always included some level of GPA and good conduct, stuff like that,” she said.
After receiving the Feb. 16 email, many students were frustrated and confused by the decision to require four-year residency.
Senior Izzy Sansanelli, secretary of student life in the Student Government Association, created a petition for students to sign and drafted an email for students to edit and then send to Interim President Wayne Powell and Residential Life.
According to SGA President senior Elizabeth Lilly, petitions show how widespread a certain position and displeasure with the policy are.
Sansanelli, along with other executive members of the SGA, have begun meeting weekly with Feyerherm and Interim Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator Greg Kirkorian.
“It’s definitely all about housing right now,” Sansanelli said. “We’re trying to compromise on what the school’s policy is, what they’re aiming for — which is four years of full-time residence — and also trying to accommodate what we’ve been hearing from the students, because at the end of the day, we are advocates for the students.”
Discussions also focus on students’ COVID-19 concerns in addition to those accommodations for physical or mental wellbeing, academic achievement, dietary restrictions, disability status, and financial reasons, according to Lilly.
For Sansanelli, the goal of these meetings is to reconcile the disconnect between students and administrators in terms of housing.
Lilly hopes these meetings will provide clarity on the policy, what sorts of exemptions would be allowed, and what sorts of contingency plans will be in place given the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The current position that I think we as students are in is advocating for recognition of all relevant exemptions from the four-year residential model,” Lilly said.
“I don’t know where our conversations are going to end. I’m going to advocate for what’s best for the students for sure, but I’m not sure where they’re going to compromise with us,” Sansanelli said.
According to Lilly, there is a recognition that changes need to be made in order to support a four-year residential model. Those include addressing exemptions, investing more in residential facilities, and changes in dining services so all accommodations related to dietary restrictions and habits are easily accessible to students.
According to Feyerherm, the process of evaluating residential facilities and developing plans to make those facilities meet the College’s expectations of them, as well as students’ and parents’ expectations, is ongoing.
“As we’ve looked at it, our focus is on what have traditionally been the first-year residence halls and those double-loaded hallway traditional style halls…those are the ones that need the most immediate attention,” Feyerherm said.
While some of these fixes are full renovations — like those done to Cullen Hall’s HVAC system — others are more cosmetic and incremental changes — like replacing the windows in Minta Martin Hall.
Unlike past years, there are no housing options with Kent Crossing Apartments or any other non-dorm housing.
According to Feyerherm, adding suite-style or townhouse-type living with a full kitchen for upperclassmen is on the strategic planning docket for residence halls. This housing option is currently not available anywhere on campus and WC does not have any contracts with outside apartments.
“Another thing that is sort of our checklist in residence halls is getting full kitchens — especially in those traditional residence halls that are not suites,” Feyerherm said.
Students living on campus are also required to have a meal plan, with very few exemptions for students with accommodations for medical reasons.
Feyerherm encourages students to be involved in the dining plan process when the contracts with Chartwell are up for renewal.
An email from Residential Life should be sent out soon with more information on the housing policy, according to Feyerherm.
“We know students are anxious for that guidance, so we’re working on that as quickly as we can,” Feyerherm said.
Many students were confused about the policy announced in the Feb. 16 email, because these issues have not been addressed since 2019, when off-campus housing for the 2019-2020 academic year was limited, followed by former WC President Kurt Landgraf announcing a four-year residency policy.
When that housing exemption application for 2019-2020 was made available, the parameters outlined that “exemptions are granted to students who will be junior or senior status at the start of fall, have a 2.5 cumulative GPA or higher, and are in good social standing,” according to an email from Residential Life on Feb. 7, 2019.
On March 27, 2019, Residential Life announced that no additional off-campus housing requests would be approved “until after room draw is complete and there is a better sense of what our on-campus capacity is.”
That outline also stipulated that those remaining requests would be “ranked according to credit status and GPA.”
When Landgraf initially announced the policy in the fall of 2019, many students were upset.
In an Oct. 30, 2019 email, Landgraf acknowledged students’ concerns with the changes regarding off-campus housing for upperclassmen but justified the decision.
“Ultimately our goal as a four-year residential college is to have more students living on campus their entire four years. And while the College’s financial considerations are a factor, so is the argument for the value of a full four-year residential experience and how it supports students’ education and a more cohesive community,” the email said. “I’ve heard your concerns, and using student input, we’re going to re-examine our proposed changes to the off-campus approval process for next year.”
Landgraf attended SGA Senate on Nov. 12, 2019, allowing students to voice their concerns with the proposed off-campus housing policy. Members of the SGA’s Executive Board also met with Landgraf to voice students’ concerns.
Sansanelli worked with Landgraf and other administrators in 2019 after students were upset with the initial policy.
“We ended up not going with a four-year residential policy, but it was never — I guess it was never made official — President Landgraf didn’t end up making that decision, I believe…but this has been a policy that has been brought up in the past and it is a policy that the school has been working towards,” Sansanelli said.
According to Feyerherm, “The consensus coming out of that group was that it was important to signal to students for the following year that while the process for requesting an exemption was still the same, the number of approvals would likely drop as a result of the plan to have a larger percentage of students living on campus.”
No announcement of Landgraf’s policy postponement was emailed to campus.
An email from Director of Residential Life and Associate Dean of Students Ursula Herz on Dec. 19, 2019 explained that “as we transition towards [a full four-year residency model], we will continue to allow eligible rising juniors and seniors to apply to live off campus for the 2020-2021 academic year.”
That email explained that students already living off-campus needed to confirm their plans to continue to live off campus the following year. The email also said that students who wanted to apply to live off-campus had to have junior or senior status at the start of the fall 2020 semester, be in good social standing with the College, and have a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA at the time of application.
All previously conceived housing plans were sidelined because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WC Response Team sent an email on July 8, 2020 requesting that students indicate their intentions about living arrangements for the fall 2020 semester.
That email indicated that the College would be working “off of a model of housing approximately 850 students on campus, which allows us to house many students in singles. Additionally, we have been able to release some additional students to live off-campus with a one-year waiver of our non-campus residency requirement. Students who were provided this waiver should note that it is a one-year waiver in response to the pandemic and that they will have to submit a waiver next spring if they want to request to live off-campus for the following year.”
During the fall 2020 semester, only 32 students were living on campus. During that same period, the College granted additional housing exemptions with the stipulation that those students would not be guaranteed to live off campus again the next year.
When planning for the spring 2021 semester, Student Affairs gauged how many students would be allowed to return on campus and what sorts of regulations would need to be put in place to maintain the safety of both the WC and Chestertown communities.
The initial decision was focused on getting first-year students on campus, to the dismay of many upperclassmen and their families. An updated housing decision increased the number of students allowed to return to campus from 460 with a focus on first-year students to everyone who wanted to come back, as reported by The Elm.
Currently, there are 390 students living on campus and 239 living in Chestertown. According to the COVID-19 parameter of those additional exemptions, all of those 239 students who are not graduating seniors must reapply to continue living off campus.
Housing applications for the 2021-2022 school year opened on Feb. 16 and will stay open until March 31. Students must complete the housing application in order to indicate who they would like to live with and what building and room they want to live in.
While it is unknown if students will be able to live in the same room with someone, Feyerherm recommends that students who want to live together — either in a double or just in the same suite — should request to live together as they normally would, so that Residential Life can use that information to keep those students together as they finalize dorms.
Room selection will be on April 13 and 14 for juniors and seniors, April 15 and 16 for sophomores, and April 20, 21, and 22 for freshmen.
Applications for housing exemptions can also be found on the housing portal, though it is to be determined when that application will be available, according to the Feb. 16 email. Decisions on housing exemptions will be sent on April 1.
According to the Housing Exemption Application Process page on the WC website, “Only seniors with a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA, and in good social and academic standing, both on campus and off campus, are eligible to apply for an exemption to this requirement.”
Exemptions based on age and permanent residence will continue to be routinely approved when those students request an exemption. Exemptions based on accommodation — when it has been determined the College cannot reasonably accommodate a student’s disability in on-campus housing — that are backed up with documentation through the disability office in conjunction with health and counseling, when appropriate, will be approved on a case-by-case basis.
After those exemptions have been approved, those applications from seniors with the aforementioned GPA and social and academic standing requirements will be considered for off-campus housing.
According to Feyerherm, it is unknown how many housing exemptions will be granted, but those students who want to be considered should apply.
“Over the next several weeks we are working on hammering out our best guess of what the situation will be on campus and how many off-campus approvals we can allow. But it’s better for a student’s request to be in the system for review — even if it’s ultimately not approved,” she said.
Featured Photo caption: Student outcry arose again with the announcement of decreased off-campus housing waivers for upperclassmen. The plan to turn WC into a four-year residential college was initially announced in 2019, but its effects were stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Izze Rios.