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UNC System students protesting policy that could deny housing refunds for COVID-19 closures

When students at UNC-Greensboro and Western Carolina University started getting their new on-campus housing contracts this week, something jumped out at them: a clause that said the university isn’t obligated to issue refunds if, like last semester, students have to vacate their dorms due to the ongoing COVI-19 pandemic.

The passage in question reads “…in the event of such temporary closures, restrictions, and/or adjustments to the housing services schedule, the University shall not have the obligation to issue a partial refund or credit for such interruptions or adjustments.”

For students who are already nervous about returning to full-capacity dorms as North Carolina continues to record record infection and hospitalization rates, it raised alarms.

More than 28,000 have signed an online petition at Change.org protesting the policy.

The blowback led UNCG to clarify its position this week, issuing a statement that said they were simply following UNC System guidance:

We recognize the challenges and uncertainty associated with potential changes in operations at UNCG and other public universities in the coming year because of COVID-19. As a result of practical and financial considerations UNCG has shared with our incoming residential students a contract addendum drafted with guidance from the UNC System that indicates the university is not under any obligation to provide refunds as occurred in the Spring of 2020.

We know that this addendum has created some concern. We recognize this language has been interpreted as a comprehensive decision not to issue refunds in any circumstances. We would like to clarify this position.

 Consistent with UNC System guidance, we are advising our students of the possibility that refunds may not be available, particularly absent state or federal financial relief, to aid in student and family decision making.  The current economic environment for UNCG and the UNC System makes determining our future refund strategy extremely difficult at this time. The financial implications of these decisions directly impact our ability to provide meaningful educational programs, experiences, and student services in the future. However, if we are able to find ways to offer financial relief – in the form of refunds or other measures – to support our students, we will do so.

But the UNC System Office said Thursday it’s given no guidance to schools suggesting they should reserve the right not to refund housing money.

Last semester the UNC System gave prorated housing refunds to students after the semester was cut short. But the system doesn’t have a current, firm policy on the issue, said Jason Tyson, the UNC System’s director of Media Relations.

On Thursday Tyson provided the guidance given by UNC System Interim President Bill Roper to the system’s 17 campuses. The section on tuition & fees and campus housing has language suggesting housing refunds will  or should be denied.

Neither does it lay out the conditions under which students might expect housing refunds.

“I think individual schools will be issuing their own communications on this,” Tyson said Thursday.

[Update: On Friday morning Josh Ellis,  UNC System Associate Vice Chancellor for Media Relations Josh Ellis, contacted Policy Watch to make clear the UNC System did in fact give guidance that schools should make it clear students might not be refunded for housing costs if campuses are closed. Ellis provided a portion of a legal memo send from the UNC System to the individual schools that makes the issue more clear.

The relevant portion of that memo:

“Housing Contract Guidance

We understand that most institutions have already signed housing contracts for the 2020-21 academic year. If you are not far along that process already, please do what you can to ensure that your institution has the ability in housing contracts or other related policies to do the following:
• Adjust the housing services schedule;
• Temporarily close campus housing;
• Restrict residents’ use of campus housing; and
• Not provide refunds of housing fees in circumstances your institution determines are
appropriate.
To the extent your institution is able to incorporate additional terms to this end into its housing contracts or related policies or handbooks for the 2020-21 academic year, below is sample language for your consideration, although its use is not mandatory:
[Institution] and resident acknowledge the ongoing possibility that, due to a health or safety emergency, including the COVID-19 outbreak, resident may not be able to occupy campus housing, or resident’s use of campus housing facilities may be significantly restricted. Furthermore, during a health or safety emergency, certain companies or staff contracted by [Institution] to provide certain services to campus housing facilities may not be available or may be significantly limited. Notwithstanding anything in this Agreement to the contrary, [Institution] may adjust the housing services schedule contained herein, temporarily close, and/or place restrictions on use of housing facilities as necessary in [Institution’s] sole discretion to preserve the health and safety of residents and the campus community. Resident acknowledges that, in the event of such temporary closures, restrictions, and/or adjustments to the housing services schedule, [Institution] shall not have the obligation to issue a partial refund or credit for such interruptions or adjustments.
In the event [Institution] requires resident to vacate university housing, resident will be responsible for removing all valuable personal items at that time. In certain circumstances, [Institution] may remove possessionsand/or furnishings from housing units inorder for those units to be used for other emergency purposes. [Institution] will not be responsible for loss or damage to resident’s personal items that must be moved and stored in such instances.”]

On Thursday UNC-Chapel Hill announced it would provide refunds if students have to vacate dorms due to the pandemic.

Campuses across the UNC System have suffered huge revenue losses and expenses for which they had not prepared since the onset of the pandemic.

Roper and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey have both said the university’s core business plan doesn’t work if students do not return to campus, insisting that providing a on-campus, residential experience this campus this Fall is key to keeping students enrolled and the campuses financially healthy.

Whether students system-wide can expect housing refunds — and whether the individual schools will be able to afford them — appears to be an open question.

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UNC System students protesting policy that could deny housing refunds for COVID-19 closures