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USF won’t refund housing costs if virus causes campuses to close again

The university says it can't shoulder all the financial burden of another COVID-19 closure. Students and parents say they can't either.

Students in University of South Florida residence halls will bear a heavy financial risk this year, with the possibility of paying thousands of dollars for living space they won’t be using.

The university is requiring students to sign an addendum to their year-long housing contracts that states USF will not offer refunds if on-campus housing needs to close early this year.

If the COVID-19 outbreak worsened in the fall, forcing campuses to shut down like they did in the spring, students would shoulder the financial losses that come with that decision, not the university.

That message went out to students last week, a day after USF’s Board of Trustees approved a plan to reopen for the fall semester.

Parents of USF students have started an online petition demanding the university reverse the new policy.

“This cost for in- and out-of-state families is in excess of $15,000, in some cases,” the petition said. “It is unacceptable to take advantage of students who cannot control current events.”

Steve Currall, the USF president, said in an interview this week that the decision to not offer refunds was based on what the university could afford.

“It’s a very challenging situation for all of us: for our students and their parents, and the university as well,” he said. “We have a number of fixed costs that we have to maintain to provide housing and dining and so on, so we’re just trying to balance those out and be committed more than anything to transparency. These are things we’ll have to navigate over the next several months.”

USF’s dean of student housing, Ana Hernandez, said the addendum gives students until July 1 to cancel their housing contracts if they no longer wish to live on campus, and lets students know about the situation up front.

“We’re hearing students are eager to come back to campus,” she said. “But we’re in a new day. We want to make it clear that their expectations aren’t based on past assumptions.”

Sandy Ahmadi, whose son will be enrolling as a freshman at USF, said she thinks it’s unfair for parents to take on the full financial risk.

“I agree with the school that the burden of risk can’t lie solely with the school because so much is unknown to all of us,” she said. “But I don’t think at that kind of price tag it’s right for parents and students to take all of that.”

Ahmadi said she did not like the way the addendum was worded or sent to students.

“It was kind of insensitive,” she said. “Kind of callous actually.”

She said she will be waiting to see what other universities say next week to the Board of Governors about their plans before deciding whether to allow her son to live on campus.

If students do not accept all terms of the addendum, they must cancel their housing contracts by July 1 and will receive no penalty. After July 1, they can still cancel without a penalty if they have yet to be assigned to a room. But if they have been assigned to a room and haven’t canceled before Aug. 1, they must pay $1,000. After that, until Aug. 20, the penalty will be $1,500.

If a contract is canceled after Aug. 20, they would have to pay half the remaining amount on the contract.

Florida State University’s housing department sent a similar message to students earlier this month, saying it could not guarantee campus housing would remain open for the full semester.

“If the academic calendar availability is adjusted, the semester rental rate for on-campus halls and Seminole Dining plans will not be adjusted,” the message said.

Housing is solely funded by rental fees collected from students, said Hernandez, the USF housing dean.

“Occupancy is a big factor,” she said.

Amid growing numbers of new coronavirus cases, more than 32,000 students have registered for the fall semester at USF. Of those, about 7,000 students have applied for 6,300 available beds in on-campus housing, Hernandez said.

In addition to the new refund policy, the addendum outlines changes in the residential experience and expectations of students, including wearing masks when within six feet of another student and not allowing visitors.

USF spokesman Adam Freeman said the university’s reopening plan is centered around risk mitigation, with the hope that the semester continues without interruption to other student services. But USF does not plan to refund housing costs, or other student fees.

In the spring, he said, even after courses moved online, other campus services such as the Bull Runner transportation system, continued to operate in a modified capacity.

“We have to prepare for a range of possible scenarios and develop contingency plans if we have to scale back operations due to COVID-19,” he said in an email. “Our contingency plans give us the flexibility to allow our students to continue taking courses and accessing services remotely to keep them on a path to timely graduation without providing refunds.”

When the pandemic caused courses to shift online in spring, universities across the state partially refunded housing and dining plans. But they did not do the same for parking, transportation and other fees.

A lawsuit filed by a University of Florida student in May against the state university system called for these fees to be refunded. Matthew Miller, an attorney for the case, said the state university system has yet to respond to the complaint.

Related: RELATED: Florida Universities Should Refund Student Fees Lawsuit Says

No decisions have been made about housing refunds at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, according to officials in public information offices at those schools.

At USF, the cost of living on campus this year ranges from $5,990 to $11,846 for fall and spring.

Sofia Gluskin, who will be a sophomore in fall, said she read the addendum quickly and didn’t grasp the part about no refunds until she saw a post in a Facebook group.

“I feel that if USF feels they can even open their dorms, they should be willing to refund us if they have to be closed again, as that would still be out of our control,” she said.

Gluskin said she wants to wait a little longer to hear what classes may be available on campus, but is leaning toward canceling if it doesn’t seem like many will be in-person.

Tangela Walker-Craft said she was disappointed the university did not release its course schedule before students could make the decision whether they wanted to live on campus. She wondered what the point of her daughter living on campus would be if all her courses were going to be online.

Colleges are required to provide their course schedules by June 26. USF’s housing website states that final course schedules may not be available before July 1.

Still, Walker-Craft, a 1992 graduate of USF, was willing to allow her daughter to live on campus.

“I love the school,” she said. “I would not trade my college experience for anything.”

Her daughter found three other students via Facebook and researched each residence hall. They applied for housing, but when they received the addendum Walker-Craft had a change of heart.

“I’m really upset USF seemed to put finances before the kids,” Walker-Craft said. “Do I take that chance?”

She also worried about the clause for no visitors in case she needed to come to her daughter.

“I couldn’t go check on my own child and know what’s going on?”

Her daughter, she said, is disappointed. The end of her high school experience was brought to a halt by the coronavirus and now the beginning of her college experience won’t be what she thought it would be.

Walker-Craft and the parents of her daughter’s roommates decided to opt out and choose an off-campus apartment. The option, she said, is more cost-effective.

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