Cristina Lozano, a junior at New York University (NYU), has been staying at the chic W New York Hotel, a 1911 beaux arts-style building that overlooks Union Square Park and offers a short walk to the Empire State Building.
The hotel is booked until next summer, when prices are advertised from the $400s to the $600s a night. For now, the place belongs to Lozano and others like her, who are living in single rooms that her university is using as campus housing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Living in the hotel is the exact same price as most of the dorms, which I find a bit weird because I don't have a kitchen and I am not getting many of the same amenities dorms have,” said Lozano. “If I wasn't on scholarship, I probably wouldn't want to pay to live in the hotel.”
Some students are living on-campus, others in off-campus apartments, some are sharing homes or hotels, and many have remained at home with their families during the pandemic, which has upended how students go to college and university in 2020.
Lozano was randomly assigned to the hotel after applying for on-campus housing earlier this year. A service comes every Tuesday to clean the bathrooms and bring clean sheets. Students receive a discount in the hotel restaurant, she said.
“The hotel has a huge lobby, but they closed off the sitting area because of COVID-19. They don't want people loitering in the hotel,” said Lozano. “There is hotel elevator music playing, which is funny, and very different from what you would experience in a dorm.”
On the weekends, the farmers market in Union Square brings a lot of foot traffic near the W, Lozano said.
Lozano, like other on-campus housing residents, is not allowed to have guests and is required to wear a mask at all times. She said she’s comfortable with her situation.
“I am happy, honestly, because I think you are in a different mindset if you are closer to school, even though I live in Manhattan,” said Lozano. “Once you are out of the house and in that college mindset, have your college routine and your college friends who are in your classes, I think you are more focused overall.”
Social life in New York City has changed dramatically because of COVID-19. To buy alcohol at a restaurant or bar, you have to order food, which has centered the social scene around going out to eat, Lozano said.
“In my immediate social group, a lot of my friends are off-campus in apartments, so they will invite people over,” she said. “But what used to be a group of 30 is now a group of five.”
A younger crowd of college students and people in their 20s can be seen out on the weekends, Lozano said.
“More so toward the East Village, you see people go to bars and restaurants later in the night to socialize,” she said. “In the street, you see people not wearing masks as much, but most people are wearing masks, and it seems like people really care about it here.”
NYU is among the universities that offer COVID-19 testing for students. Lozano has already been tested twice since returning to school about two weeks ago. NYU requires students living on campus or going to in-person classes to be tested weekly.
“I think the protocol is actually really admirable,” she said. “You go downstairs in your dorm and you pick up a saliva test, which is way easier to administer yourself, and you just have to return it back to the dorm before the deadline.”
Since Lozano is living at the W, she has to go to a neighboring dorm to pick up and drop off her tests.
Most of Lozano’s friends live within walking distance from her, although she occasionally will take public transportation to get around the city.
“I take the subway, but I definitely take it with caution,” she said. “The train can be really packed, as if nothing ever happened, especially during rush hours.”
While it's mandated by state law to wear a mask on the subway, Lozano said she doesn’t see that being enforced by authorities.
“That's one of my concerns about being on a train is if someone sitting across from you isn't wearing a mask, it's not like you're in a position to tell them to put their mask on,” she said.
While housing at the hotel is temporary for students at NYU, the university has not updated the students about when they will be moved out.
“The situation is really scary, but I feel pretty safe given what I am doing and the precautions I am taking,” said Lozano.
Students living in off-campus housing have expanded freedom while still living close to campus. Although, local jurisdictions have placed restrictions on the number of guests allowed in a residence due to COVID-19.
Despite these restrictions, off-campus housing can leave universities with little control over students' behavior and whereabouts.
Julia Seungyeon Han is an international student from Seoul, South Korea, studying to get her master’s degree in applied mathematics and statistics at the State University of New York-Stony Brook. She is living in a one-bedroom apartment off-campus.
Han made the decision to return to campus to take an in-person Real Analysis course at the university. Han was able to find her off-campus apartment through a friend.
“Exposure to COVID-19 is the greatest fear,” she said. “Since the school is reporting several positive cases, there is a risk of encountering positive ones whom I do not know and where they will appear.”
Han said she worries that if she got COVID-19, her student insurance would not provide adequate health care coverage. Also, she said if she left the U.S., her student visa status would become unstable, and getting back into the U.S. to go to school might become problematic.
Han stated that she notices most students at the university wearing masks at all times.
“It is not allowed to get into any of the buildings in school without wearing face masks,” she said. “There are a lot of signs and posters to let the students know that they should keep social distancing in all buildings, including libraries and lecture rooms.”
SUNY-Stony Brook offers free COVID-19 testing for students taking in person classes, according to Han. She said she doesn’t socialize with her friends in person while at school.
“I often go to the main library to study, but I don't go to school to interact with my friends,” said Han. “I spend time and socialize with my friends through online platforms, such as Facebook or Instagram.”
Sophia Michaelson, a junior at Syracuse University, is living off-campus in an apartment complex with two of her sorority sisters. Since moving into her apartment more than three weeks ago, Michaelson has already noticed several gatherings in the complex close to Syracuse’s main campus.
“I’ve noticed a lot of other apartments will have people over. Since many of those students are in Greek Life, sometimes the parties will get relatively large for how small the apartments are,” she said. “I feel like that definitely can't be safe in regard to COVID-19.”
Students often don’t wear masks in the apartment complex as the hallways are outdoors, Michaelson said.
Michaelson and her roommates signed their lease for the apartment back in October 2019, before the spread of the virus. While Michaelson is legally bound to her lease, there was a window before the start of the lease in August in which she could break her lease agreement for $500. She and her roommates decided to keep their lease despite COVID because of the freedom provided by living off-campus.
“I definitely am happy with this arrangement in a COVID-19 scenario, because we were considering living in our sorority house, and that would have limited our freedom to do stuff,” said Michaelson. “For example, we wouldn't have been able to have people over that didn't live there, but now I can see my friends to whatever extent I'm comfortable with.”
Living off-campus, Michaelson is allowed to use on-campus facilities with her student ID card, as long as she continues to update her COVID-19 status with the university. Like many universities, Syracuse offers a COVID-19 portal for students to upload their negative or positive test results, and it also provides contact tracing for students.
Kasey Borduas, a junior at the University of Maryland, was supposed to live in her sorority house — considered on-campus housing — but opted out at the last minute for fear UMD would send their students home mid-semester because of COVID-19.
Instead, she rented an apartment close to campus with three roommates.
“It was a financial sacrifice my family decided was worth it because if I didn’t pay for an apartment, I would have had to stay home for the semester,” said Borduas, from Madison, Connecticut.
While Borduas enjoys the freedom of living off-campus, she said she is cautious about the virus.
“I go out to dinner, but we follow the rules all the time and always have our masks on,” she said. “I'm trying to find a new normal as much as I can, but I feel like isolating myself completely would be sort of pointless.”
Borduas and her roommates live in an apartment building where she has noticed people wearing masks inside, but outside less so. Social scenes at UMD also have changed, according to Borduas. Bars at UMD now require everyone to stay seated.
“I have noticed loud music from some rooms, but we play loud music, too, and there are three people in our room,” she said. “I don't necessarily think people are throwing parties, I just think people are trying to have as much fun as they can.”
UMD requires students to self-report positive cases. Borduas and her roommates decided that if one of them tested positive for COVID-19, they would all quarantine together as an apartment.
Quarantining for many students living off-campus with roommates is a constant issue. UMD offers COVID-19 testing for students through their health center, and testing is a requirement for students to use on-campus facilities.
Uncertainty for college students continues as the fall semester commences. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sent students home in August because of a large COVID-19 outbreak.
The University of Wisconsin Madison announced early in the semester it would quarantine two dorms on-campus and switch to remote learning for two weeks.
Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, recently banned off-campus students from campus indefinitely after 10 students living off-campus tested positive for COVID-19.
And despite the uncertainty, 76% of college students planned to return to campus this fall if given the option, according to a College Reaction poll taken in July.