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Rice approved 77 percent of petitions to stay on campus, but some students disappointed with decisions

Illustration by Yifei Zhang

By Christina Tan     3/20/20 2:04pm

Editor’s Note: Some students were granted anonymity to varying degrees to protect information about petitioning reasons.

On-campus students had less than two weeks to pack up and leave campus for the semester after being notified on March 12 that the move-out deadline would be March 25. While many students left or stayed away from campus, some students took an option provided by the Dean of Undergraduates’ office: filing petitions to stay on campus. 77 percent of petitions were approved, according to Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman, including petitions from students who later decided to leave campus.

Rice’s actions were echoed in universities across the country in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Many campuses, such as Harvard University, had already asked students to do the same — often with far harsher deadlines (Harvard gave its students five days, while students still had in-person classes). On the West Coast, students protested at Pomona College after a survey showed that 98 of 135 respondents had their petitions to stay denied. 

At Rice, a survey sent out by the Thresher suggests that Gorman’s statement is correct: out of 28 respondents, 21 students (80 percent) said their petition was accepted, and a GroupMe group with people staying at Rice or in Houston has 312 members as of publication. Reasons for petitioning ranged from mental health concerns to precarious living situations at home to international students worried about time differences and COVID-19 breakouts in their home country. 

“[The] answer took longer than expected, but I’m glad I don’t have to worry about moving off,” Sam Robedee, a Wiess College junior, said. “I can focus on being a student and passing my classes.”

The official standards for petition approval, as stated by the Dean’s office, are that a student must be “an international student who: has immigration, travel or visa restrictions; whose home is in a country currently designated as Level 3 on the CDC’s warning list for COVID-19; or whose home country has extremely limited internet connectivity” or face “housing insecurity or a precarious living situation that would make remote completion of the semester unduly difficult.”

Rice denied petitions from students who did not fit these standards. Robin Xiao, a student from Westchester County, New York petitioned to stay at Rice after hearing about the outbreak in his hometown. The area contains the heavily-affected New Rochelle and the nation’s first “containment area.” At time of publication, there were 798 cases in Westchester.

Xiao said he submitted his petition a day after it was sent out. 

“I agree with their decision since I know there are cases more important than mine, but I do wish there was more clarity and urgency in Rice's overall response,” Xiao, a Sid Richardson College junior, said. “The more they waited, the worse the situation became in my hometown and the more I felt unsure of what exactly to do.” 

Other students remain in limbo. Although the Dean of Undergraduates’ office has said that all petitions have been answered, one student says that they haven’t heard back, and others say their petition was approved and then suddenly rescinded.

Gorman said that students who were denied their petition or had a change in circumstances due to new travel bans can appeal their decision by emailing ugdean@rice.edu.

A McMurtry College freshman said that she petitioned to stay on campus because her mother had previously been physically abusive and her father is immunocompromised. Instead of a response from the Dean’s office, she first received an email from the SAFE Office asking if she needed support and then a call from the financial aid office offering assistance. At time of publication, she said she still hadn’t heard directly from the Dean’s office about staying on campus and decided to assume her petition was denied.

“I don’t know whether to pack my things or not, and it’s an additional stressor in what’s already a difficult time for so many,” she said. 

While Gorman confirmed that some petitions were referred to the SAFE Office for additional follow-up, she said her office has directly answered all petitions. 

A Lovett College sophomore said her petition was originally approved on Sunday but was rescinded in a follow-up email 24 hours later. 

Gorman said that approvals were rescinded when students who petitioned to stay on campus returned home before the final decision on their petition was communicated to them.

“Those approvals were rescinded because the circumstances requiring the student to remain on campus had changed,” Gorman said. 

The Lovett College sophomore said that since she can’t prove that she didn’t interact with anyone outside of her household, she thinks Rice would find her a liability when returning to campus.

Moving forward, she said she plans to speak with her college’s core team so they can advocate on her behalf. If her petition is still denied, she said she will live with high school friends before seeking a women’s shelter.

“I feel that I have made it clear to Rice that my home is not always a safe place for me and it is especially not a place where I can succeed academically,” she said. “I think that the decision that they are making, as well as the poorly handled correspondence, shows a lack of care for student wellbeing and difficult living circumstances.”

One junior said they also had their petition accepted on Sunday and then rescinded a day later on Monday. After calling the Dean’s office, the junior was informed that the decision was due to information about the student’s whereabouts that the student described as “inaccurate.” After speaking with their magisters, who sent an email on their behalf, and after sending another email detailing their situation, the Dean’s office reversed their decision again on Tuesday, allowing the student to stay on campus.

“When my petition was first approved, I was thinking, wow, Rice is handling this so much better than other universities and they really care about individual situations, but after receiving the second email it was like the rug was yanked out from under me,” the junior said. “In the morning on Tuesday I got an email and all it said was ‘Dean Gorman is allowing you to continue living on campus.’”

The students that have been allowed to stay at Rice face a dramatically changed campus, with most major buildings closed and take-out service only in the serveries. Still, most have expressed gratitude. 

“Incredibly lucky that Rice is letting me stay — it’s an enormous relief,” a student who was approved to live on campus said. “I love my parents, but their addictions make it tough to be at home. It’s weird to have people ask me why I petitioned, why I’m staying, etc., but I’m just grateful to be on campus and focus on school.” 

[3/23/2020 10:12 p.m.] This article was corrected to reflect the fact that Robedee is a junior.

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