After dispute with protesters, Pomona lets about 100 students stay during pandemic

Students move a mattress after Pomona College directed students to leave campus. (Mabel Lui • The Student Life)

After a much-publicized fight by first-generation, low-income and international Pomona College students to remain in campus housing after the school sent most students away in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, about 100 students remain on campus as of Friday.

Occupy Pomona, a student organizing group, demanded last week that all petitions to stay at the college for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year be immediately approved. Though the school would not provide specific numbers, the protesters said most of the petitions to stay on campus were initially rejected by administrators late last week.

The students’ housing struggles gained national attention, with coverage in outlets like The Los Angeles Times and Inside Higher Ed, among others. 

Now, after Pomona’s Wednesday evacuation deadline, about 100 students remain on campus, according to an email Friday from Pomona administrators to the remaining students. 

Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall would not confirm whether any students in this group had originally petitioned to stay but were denied. 

But Occupy Pomona framed the update as a victory, posting on Twitter on Friday afternoon that administrators had “announced that students living on campus right now will be able to stay at Pomona through the end of the semester,” and drawing praise and excitement online from those following the saga.

Occupy Pomona organizers did not respond to a request for comment.

The number of students remaining on campus may still change, Kendall told TSL. 

“The numbers are still unsettled as some students who were approved to stay are now deciding to leave,” Kendall said “We are still working to determine a sustainable campus population as we feel the impact of the governor’s stay at home order on college staffing.” 

Despite the apparent victory, some students griped at the overall response from the administration.

“The school has made me feel like a burden,” Marie Tano PO ’21 — whose petition was rejected — told the LA Times Tuesday. “This is a school with a $2-billion endowment.”

“I feel really desperate to remain on campus,” she added.

As of Tuesday, Tano was planning to stay with alumni in Los Angeles, according to the Times, despite Pomona’s previous request to community members not to host displaced students.

A poll circulated by Occupy Pomona last week found that of the 135 students who responded, 98 petitions were denied and 37 were approved.

Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr and Vice Presidents Robert Gaines and Avis Hinkson said in an email to students still living on campus Friday that the group that is being allowed to stay is “still a substantial number to accommodate in light of fast-moving developments that will severely limit staffing.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were still 400 to 500 students living on campus, Starr told The Claremont Courier. Administrators had initially required students not approved to remain to leave campus by Wednesday.

Starr told the Courier that the school has been attempting to decrease the number of students on campus and that “we need students to move as expeditiously as possible,” but that the school would not evict or fine students who refused to leave.

“We’re not doing anything draconian to our students. We’re asking them to be as patient as possible while we get to the point where we know that everyone who can leave has left. And, time is of the essence,” she said. “So, we’re just asking folks to be patient. Once we get to a resting place, then we can come up with some options.” 

Administrators said students who remain on campus are expected to move to the Oldenborg Center by Tuesday, because it “has the type of air circulation deemed healthiest for this situation, the better ratio of students per bathroom, is closer to the mailroom and Residence Life Office and has an industrial kitchen should we need to move dining operations into the building. Most importantly, every student will be able to have a single, which supports the essential social distancing requirements.”

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Before the plan was announced, Occupy Pomona organizers expressed concern about moving to Oldenborg in a letter to Pomona administrators.

The letter said that dorm “buildings such as Oldenborg have many stairs and a highly inaccessible floor plan,” and claimed that “both administration and students know that Oldenborg is expected to be renovated in the upcoming years because it is structurally unsound, and thus cannot adequately sustain students during the pandemic.”

The letter argued that the safest, most accessible Pomona residence halls were Sontag Hall and Dialynas Hall, given their large capacities, elevators and multiple kitchens, which organizers said is a necessary feature for students with dietary restrictions, especially while dining services are limited.

Both Sontag and Dialynas are laid out suite-style, with four or six rooms sharing a common room, entrance and bathroom. Most Oldenborg rooms share a bathroom with just one other room and have separate entrances.

The email added that housing assignments will be made based on accessibility needs, as well as suitemate preferences.

Students remaining in campus housing will also be expected to “adhere to some public health requirements that allow for only essential travel (this should allow for purchase of essential items) under the new stay-at-home orders,” and may not be allowed back into campus housing if they leave overnight, according to the email.

Starr voiced concerns to the Courier about the college’s capacity to keep students and staff members healthy.

“We have a lot of students who are really trying to be responsible and take care of their families,” Starr said. “And [when] we have to balance that against if we get a case on campus, and then we get six cases, then we have potentially vulnerable staff members who may be exposed.”

Kendall added that the statewide stay-at-home order issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday will bring “more limitations to on-campus staffing.”

He reiterated the “absolute urgency” for students and all members of the college community to practice social distancing, “something we know goes against the very nature of a small residential liberal arts college.”

“For those who remain on campus, our way of life will change drastically for a period of time,” Kendall added. “We need to do everything we can to protect our students, faculty and staff, and support public health efforts in our wider community.”

Occupy Pomona has raised $90,186 with a GoFundMe established March 14, as of 9 a.m. Saturday. According to the fundraiser description, donated money will go toward rent, food and basic necessities, cleaning and sanitary supplies, medical expenses and emergency storage for students who cannot go home, choose not to or do not have homes to return to. 

Starr implied to the Courier that the school has also spent significant funds to help students evacuate from campus.

“We have — I’m not going to get into how much we’ve spent — but we’ve bought plane tickets for students, we’ve bought luggage, provided gasoline, we’ve supported rental cars, and as many things as we possibly can to help,” she said.

Pitzer College has 49 students remaining in campus housing, and it is delivering meals to their doors daily, President Melvin Oliver said in an email Friday. Eighty-five students remain in Claremont McKenna College housing, according to Dean of Students Dianna Graves, and 45 remain in Scripps College housing, spokesperson Rachael Warecki said.

Harvey Mudd College did not require students to leave campus.

This article was last updated March 21, 2020 at 3:15 p.m.

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