BEMIDJI -- Students at Bemidji State were thrown for another loop this past weekend when the swift decision was made to have all on-campus students move out of the residence halls.

An email was sent to students on the evening of March 18 stating that the residence halls would remain open to ensure all students had a place to live. But things didn’t stay that way for long.

Another email was sent out around 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening, March 20, informing students they had until 5 p.m. on Monday, March 23, to move out of their dorms.

“In support of national efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ of community transmission of the coronavirus, we need to minimize the number of students living on our campus,” the email said. “This leads us to take the strong action of closing our residence halls, effective at 5 p.m. on Monday, March 23. We recognize that this action creates yet another major disruption for our students and regret that it is necessary.”

Andy Bartlett, executive director of communication and marketing at BSU, said that they made the quick decision based on the circumstances at the time.

“We have been responding to advice from the Minnesota Department of Health and the (Minnesota State) System Office, to try to reduce the number of people we have on our campus,” Bartlett explained. “And once all of the employees started working from home, our largest concentration of people were in the residence halls. So just for everyone’s safety it made sense to close the halls.”

He said the decision was made as fast as possible, while still understanding that some students wouldn’t be able to make it just over the weekend, which is why the deadline was set at 5 p.m. on Monday.

The email also informed students that were not currently in Bemidji, not to return to the residence halls for the rest of the spring semester, except to retrieve their belongings. Anyone who was unable to get their things by the deadline would have their rooms locked and would be able to pack them up at a future date.

Freshman Helen Mlady of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Jennifer Hornseth of Rochester were two of the many students frantically packing their belongings on Monday.

Mlady said that because of the short notice she had to rent a storage unit in town and is flying home to Texas with just one checked bag, and will have to come back for the rest of her things at a later date.

“It was completely last minute,” Mlady said as she loaded the trunk of their sedan. “They told us we could stay for the rest of the semester if we wanted to, and her and I were just going to stay because I didn’t want to have to fly back home with everything going on.”

She said the two of them were planning on staying because it felt safer than traveling home where the virus is worse than it is here.

“I’m nervous about flying back too, because I have a few stops, one in Minneapolis and one in Detroit,” Mlady said.

Though classes are suspended until March 30, the students said they both still have assignments and exams due by the end of this week.

“In the middle of all this moving, we don’t really have time to be dealing with all of that,” Hornseth said. “It just sucks, because I came here for my degree so I wouldn’t have to do online classes, and now I do anyway.”

Nursing freshman Lauren McComas of Marshall, Miss., was home on spring break when the news came they had to be out of their dorms in just a few short days.

“So, we drove up to the cities yesterday, and came up here today to get her stuff,” her mother, Lisa McComas, explained as she loaded Lauren’s belongings into their truck bed.

“I was also in the CNA program at Sanford, which has obviously been cut short now too, and I still haven’t taken my state test for it,” Lauren said.

BSU freshman Lauren McComas and her mother, Lisa McComas, load up her belongings on Monday outside of Oak Hall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
BSU freshman Lauren McComas and her mother, Lisa McComas, load up her belongings on Monday outside of Oak Hall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Isaiah Haakenson, a fifth-year senior in the English program said he was relieved when they got the email saying they could stay in the dorms. “But then that all changed on Friday when they said they were closing the dorms down after all,” Haakenson said as he packed up his room on Monday afternoon.

Haakenson explained that since he works in Bemidji, he didn’t want to have to quit his job to move back to his hometown of New London, Minn., so he began looking for places to live as soon as the news came in.

“I didn’t really want to have to try and find an apartment for just the few months that I would be sticking around here, so I was really struggling with where to go and what to do,” Haakenson said.

He said thankfully a friend of his who was moving back home because of the whole situation had a few months left on his lease, which now Haakenson will be able to finish out.

“Since his lease is up in June, that gives me a couple of months to figure out what to do next,” Haakenson said.

Bartlett explained that around 70 students are still living in halls due to emergency circumstances. He said most of them being international students who are unable to travel home. Others are not able to go home because of the potential of infecting a family member who is at risk. He also said that students with jobs as healthcare workers or first responders in the community have been allowed to stay as well.

One thing that has many students worried who have moved out is if they will be refunded, and if so, how that will take place.

“They haven’t announced yet how we will get any kind of refund yet for our dorms, parking passes or food,” Haakenson said. “For some of us, we’ve already paid for our meal plans and dorms and now we also have to pay for our first months rent super short notice.”

He continued saying that even if they don’t get the money back soon, it would at least be helpful for them to know what to communicate with their landlords in an effort to be able to work something else out.

"At least just something to give us an idea of how we can get through this financially,” Haakenson said.

Bartlett said that the reason they have not made an official announcement on the subject yet is because they are still waiting on some finalized guidance from the Minnesota State System Office on how to handle refunds.

“There is nothing that we have done in the past week or so that has been easy,” Bartlett said. “We know there will be consequences, even unintended consequences, to all of these kinds of things. But everything we have done has been with the safety of our students and our community first and foremost.”

Bartlett said that the faculty is working hard to switch all classes to an online format this week in preparation for classes to resume on Monday.

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