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Pomona College students struggle with where to go

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

A group of Pomona College students was resisting efforts by administration to clear the campus this week, due to fears that heading home may, in some instances, be more dangerous than staying.

Pomona First-Generation Low-Income Scholars set up a GoFundMe page March 14 that had accumulated $87,411 in donations as of 11 a.m. Thursday.

According to the page, the money will go toward rent, subletting, food, cleaning, sanitary supplies, transportation, medical expenses and emergency storage for some 300 displaced students who either cannot go home, choose not to, or do not have homes to which to return during the COVID-19 quarantine period.

One affected student is Damian Lin, 20, a junior economics major at Pomona. He was born in the US, though his family lives in Hsinchu, in northern Taiwan. He said he’s been asked to vacate his dorm and return home to his family in Taiwan.

“I have a grandma there and she’s pushing 90,” Mr. Lin said. “I don’t want to go to the airports there and potentially bring the virus to them. It’s been a panic situation.”

Through a travel agent, Pomona offered Mr. Lin air travel to his family home in Taiwan. “I told them point blank, as many other students did, that I can’t risk going home and spreading this to my family members,” he said. “I don’t want to potentially get my family dead.”

Meanwhile, Pomona College officials are working hard—and spending generously—to balance student, faculty and support staff safety with the ever-changing news out of Sacramento, Washington DC and around the world.

Deciding which students will be allowed to remain on campus is a complicated undertaking, said Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr.

“We’ve also been thinking about our total capacity, because we are not restricting sick leave for any employee of the college. We want folks to be able to be home,” Ms. Starr said. “So that means the number of staff is dipping considerably. It’s difficult for us to say how many students we can support responsibly when we’re in this situation that is, in our experience I think, unique.”

As Pomona College followed schools across the nation and switched to online learning, most students—and Pomona’s come from all around the globe—have either left on their own volition, or have taken the school up on its offers of monetary assistance with travel packing, storage, shipping and transportation.

A deadline of 5 p.m. Wednesday for all non-approved students to vacate campus came and went, with many students clearing out but some remaining.

Ms. Starr said she’s assessing the situation as it evolves, with an eye on the ultimate bottom line, safety.

“Yes, we need students to move as expeditiously as possible,” she said. “We’re still supporting them with emergency funding to help them move. We have—I’m not going to get into how much we’ve spent—but we’ve bought plane tickets for students, we’ve bought luggage, provided gasoline, we’ve supported rental cars, and as many things as we possibly can to help.”

With the First-Generation Low-Income Scholars group, the college has been thrust into a difficult position. Many in the group are wary to return to their home countries, some of which are quarantined.

As of Wednesday afternoon there were still 400 to 500 Sagehens on campus, Ms. Starr said. A full campus is about 1,600 normally, with about 200 faculty a full complement of support staff.

The number of students who will remain on campus will likely be more than 50, but less than 200, Ms. Starr said. It’s simply too early to tell what the final number will be due to the many unknowns.

The Pomona FLI Scholars group said on its GoFundMe page that it has been “evicted,” but Ms. Starr contends that is not the case, nor will it be.

“At this point we’re prioritizing taking care of our students,” Ms. Starr said. “We’re not threatening them. [They’ve] asked ‘Are you going to fine us?’ We’re not doing anything draconian to our students. We’re asking them to be as patient as possible while we get to the point where we know that everyone who can leave has left. And, time is of the essence. So, we’re just asking folks to be patient. Once we get to a resting place, then we can come up with some options.”

It was too early to tell whether or not those options might include putting up displaced students in local area hotels or other short-term rentals, Ms. Starr said.

“We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, frankly, or Friday,” she said. “The news in Orange County is limiting gatherings of 10 or more and San Bernardino County has stopped gatherings at all. Will hotels remain open? I don’t know.”

Safely balancing the number of students allowed to remain on campus with the amount of support staff is made even more complex by the innumerable unknowns the virus brings to any long term planning.

Infection is always a risk, and deciding how many people should be exposed to that risk is what Pomona administration was wrestling with this week.

“We have a lot of students who are really trying to be responsible and take care of their families,” Ms. Starr said. “And what we have to balance that against if we get a case on campus, and then we get six cases, then we have potentially vulnerable staff members who may be exposed.”

“We have a big community we have to support,”?she continued. “The school year is going to end at some point, and what we’re learning is that we do not believe we are going to be out of a pandemic at the end of the school year, so it is more increasingly likely that people who remain in close living circumstances with one another, may infect one another.”

Thursday morning Mr. Lin said he’d moved out of his dorm Wednesday night and was staying with friends off campus in Claremont. He said he was disappointed in how things were handled, decrying a lack of communication from Pomona administration.

He did, however, say that the school staff who were knocking on doors and helping students to clear out were courteous and “just doing their job.”

He’s planning on remaining local during the quarantine and is hoping to land a job to make ends meet until things normalize and he can return to his education.

“There’s also a discount grocery outlet nearby, so I’m kind of banking on that,” he said. “We’ll hopefully be all right. It’ll be a bit of a tight stretch here, especially since finding a job will be difficult. I’m experienced with coupon discount grocery shopping, so that would be our food source. If it’s on sale, take it!”

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