Keon O’Brien is a sophomore at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and he was at his pizza delivery job at Domino’s last week when he got the message.
“I was at work, it was the middle of the lunch rush,” he said. “I see the email, and I open it up and I see spring break is extended for a week, and I was like, ‘Yes, another week of break.’ And then I read the second paragraph, and I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”
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That second paragraph said students across the University of Alaska system had to move out of their dorms for the rest of spring semester in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Like other universities across the globe, UA is moving most of its classes online and shutting down nearly all of student life on campus. It’s one of the many precautions taken as the coronavirus situation develops at a dizzying speed.
About 1,600 students live in dorms across the UA system, including roughly 500 at the Anchorage campus — about 4% of the student body in the city. Nearly all of them had to quickly pack up and move out. But some have nowhere else to go.
“The next thing I did was call my parents,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s parents live in Anchorage, but they won’t for much longer. His dad is in the military and has been assigned to a base in Nebraska. Now, O’Brien will go with them.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of chaos,” he said. “And I think the feeling of anxiety is pretty universal, not just for residential students, but all students.”
In just a couple days, O’Brien packed up his bedding, his books, his clothes and his PlayStation and left campus. So did about 300 other UAA students. They vary widely in major, hometown and age.
“We have students who are 17, we have students who are 60, who live on campus. So we really do serve a wide range of people,” said Ryan Hill, the interim director of residence life at UAA.
Hill worked throughout last weekend helping students move out of their rooms. By the middle of the week, many of the university buildings were quiet and mostly empty.
At East Hall on Wednesday, stacks of cardboard boxes were piled in the lobby and a collection of students’ unwanted items crowded another corner: towels, a lamp, a fan — the remnants of a rushed evacuation.
Hill said the university is doing everything it can to help students get home.
“It is really important that they leave,” he said. “This is an unprecedented pandemic that we are dealing with. And what we are hearing from public health officials is that we are just at the beginning.”
According to Hill, UAA is buying students plane tickets home if they can’t afford them. It’s refunding students for their housing and dining fees for the part of the semester they’ll no longer be on campus. Also, if a student can’t make it back to campus after spring break, staff will box up and mail their belongings.
At the same time, Hill said, UAA is also weighing students’ requests to stay in the dorms. Some don’t have anywhere else to live or can’t get home.
“Not only is UAA school for our students, but it’s also, for many of them, their home,” he said.
One of those students is Antonia Soto. She’s a 22-year-old junior at UAA and a graduate of Anchorage’s East High School. She said when she heard she had to move out of the dorms, she immediately called her mom.
“We were just like, you know, freaking out together about where I was going to go,” Soto said. “She was like, ‘I don’t know where we’re going to put you. What’s gonna happen?’”
Soto said her mom’s house is packed. Her aunt and three cousins recently moved in after their trailer home burnt down. Her brother and sisters also live there.
So when she got the UAA form about exceptions to moving out, she said: “I filled it out as soon as possible. I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t have anywhere else to go.’”
UAA granted Soto’s request to stay on campus. They also said 20-year-old Mandie Stoll could stay. Stoll is from Hawaii, and she said she worried about flying home. She has put Anchorage as her permanent residence since she moved to Alaska in 2017.
“This is where I call home now,” she said.
About 120 others, including international students, will also hunker down in UAA buildings and ride out at least part of spring semester, if not all of it.
“I’ve never lived through anything as serious as this,” Stoll said. “So I’m definitely scared, but I think the university has done a great job trying to calm us down and keep us informed.”
Soto said she feels thankful. But she also feels a little guilty about all her friends forced to move, including those who had to leave their Anchorage jobs behind.
Hill said UAA staff will continue to feed students. They’re converting a dining hall to a take-out service. Meanwhile, professors are in the process of figuring out how to deliver their classes remotely starting next week.
Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-550-8447.