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Students unable to return home housed indefinitely at Morris Inn

and | Friday, April 3, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has dozens of students in the tri-campus community caught in limbo between school and home. 

In a March 18 email to the student body, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced Notre Dame would be closing its doors for the remainder of the semester due to the advancing virus. In a follow-up email that same day, vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding said each student originally approved to stay on campus past March 17 — 253 in total — was expected to return home as soon as possible. 

Still, with travel restrictions locking down borders both in the U.S. and around the world, many students have nowhere to go. Others may lack reliable internet access or a stable home — necessary criteria for a proper learning environment. As a result, the University is sponsoring some of the original 253 to stay at the Morris Inn for, at minimum, the rest of the academic year.

After Jenkins’s March 18 announcement, Hoffmann Harding emailed students still living on campus and invited those with reason to stay to apply for extended housing via Google Form. 

In an email to The Observer, University spokesperson Dennis Brown said staff in Campus Ministry, the Office of Student Enrichment, Notre Dame International and Residential Life also called students individually to help them work out their next steps.

“All students who identified on the form or to a staff member that they still needed housing accommodations were provided continued room and board in University-sponsored housing,” Brown said in the email.

Brown said the Emergency Operations Center made the decision to provide extended housing to the students and will continue to oversee their accommodations for the rest of their stay.

Students eligible to stay at the Morris Inn were notified in an email from Hoffmann Harding the evening of March 19. Move in took place March 21.

“Living in a common location on campus will help alleviate any potential feelings of loneliness you may experience during this uncertain and difficult time,” Hoffmann Harding said in the email. “It will also help the University reduce the number of staff on campus in accordance with public health guidelines.” 

Since March 28, the Morris Inn has also been hosting about a dozen Saint Mary’s students. Linda Timm, interim vice president for student affairs at Saint Mary’s, said a few more are staying at the Inn at Saint Mary’s and Opus Hall, the College’s on-campus apartment complex.

When we made the decision to close the residence halls, we focused on settling our students in a location that was nearby, had plentiful WiFi and equipped for food service,” Timm said in an email. “The hotels on our tri-campus were willing to assist our students, and we’re grateful for that.”

As a precautionary measure, most of the day-to-day life at the Morris Inn is relatively insular. Students are assigned one to a room, and meals are served at the door twice a day. Students also receive weekly laundry service from Saint Michael’s. According to a March 25 email from the College’s Office of Residence Life, both Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame residents receive the same services.

Morris Inn residents must abide by parietals and all other standards of conduct outlined in du Lac during their stay, according to an email sent to the Notre Dame Morris Inn residents March 20. In the interest of public health, a number of social-distancing precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also are in place. Residents must stay six to nine feet apart, may invite in no outside guests and all social gatherings are limited to 10 people.

Director of Campus Ministry Fr. Pete McCormick serves as community director of the Morris Inn. McCormick works with 10 other University staff members — called “community assistants” — to help residents during their stay. Nine of the community assistants are rectors and one is a Campus Ministry employee.

He said a large part of their job is pastoral care — making sure students’ needs are met and they feel supported. McCormick said each community assistant oversees about 10 to 20 residents.

“Being away from loved ones, being sometimes away from your own home country in the midst of a pandemic like this can be a little nerve-racking,” he said. “We want to make sure that folks feel accompanied and known and loved in the midst of all this.”

To that end, the University has arranged a number of weekly services to help build community at the Morris Inn, he said — for example, Zoom hall meetings, make-shift hall sections and virtual game nights.

Students are also allowed to use public spaces around the Inn to study and spend time together, so long as they practice social distancing, McCormick said. To keep the building clean, all shared spaces will be sanitized on a nightly basis.

“We do not have any expectations that students won’t engage with one another, go for a walk together or whatever the case might be like,” he said. “There’s going to be opportunities for [a] smaller community.”

Notre Dame senior Natural Baptiste is one of the dozens of students staying at the Morris Inn. Baptiste said a number of reasons kept him from going home. For one, he worried about remote learning.

“WiFi isn’t something I have access to readily at home,” he said. “And with my entire family at home working, being at home was not feasible.”

He was also in Morocco over spring break. While returning home, he traveled through the Netherlands just as it was declared a level three travel advisory country by the U.S. Department of State. With an eight-month-old niece at home, going home wasn’t an option, he said.

Baptiste said his transition back to Notre Dame and into the Morris Inn was not easy. Though students still on campus were told to leave “as soon as possible” in Hoffmann Harding’s email March 18, he said it wasn’t until the morning of March 19 that Residential Life offered them the chance to stay — and until then, students were left with more questions than answers. 

“If ‘Wait, what?‘ was an emotion, that’s how I felt,” Baptiste said.

Gizelle Torres-Mendez, a Saint Mary‘s sophomore, is also staying at the Inn. She said she originally applied to stay at Saint Mary‘s because she didn’t have WiFi at home. Now she has no choice because of travel restrictions in her home state, Illinois.

Torres-Mendez said her first few days at the Inn have been quiet.

“Most of us just kind of stay inside the room,” she said. 

Still, she said the Morris Inn staff have been proactive in making sure all students are settling in.

“I think they have been very good about asking if we have any issues or if they can help,” she said.

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