Claire Austin wearing a blue "Bewitched" mask and Howie Glassman wearing a homemade gray-heathered mask

Claire Austin and Howie Glassman (RESIDENTIAL LIFE AND HOUSING SERVICES)

Ensuring Safe Housing for Students and Healthcare Workers

Even when everything is business as usual, running a university residence hall poses challenges. But when you add the COVID-19 pandemic, those challenges intensify exponentially. In March of this year, 11,500 students needed to vacate the dorms—and quickly.

“Ultimately, in the interest of student health and safety, it was decided that it was best for people to be remote,” says Howie Glassman, director of housing services. Within about a half-hour of the call to empty the dorms, recalls Claire Austin, director of the Third Avenue North residence hall, “I had thousands of boxes delivered to the building.”

Staff provided students with options for managing their belongings, including packing and shipping or having their possessions dealt with later. The plan to deal with literally tons of items was rough around the edges and, understandably, elicited criticism. Many students were confused or upset; travel restrictions were also a worry. “In those initial moments, that fear students were experiencing was very real,” says Austin.

Moreover, special issues prevented some students from making alternative living arrangements. Around 400 ended up staying on campus through the end of the semester. “Some of it was not being able to get home or having a place to go,” Glassman says. Adds Austin: “It was never going to be the case that we would not allow a student to be here who had nowhere else.”

No sooner had the residence halls emptied out than the decision was made to use the building to house doctors, nurses, and other medical workers who were urgently needed at NYU Langone Hospital. Nearly 300 workers were placed, primarily in Third Avenue North, with one person assigned to a suite to allow for proper social distancing.

“It operated almost like a hotel,” Austin says. “People could come in when they needed to utilize the space and leave when they needed to—anything from folks who came for a weekend to people [who were there] the entire time.”

Services ranged from a welcome packet with FAQ about the East Village to a bus that shuttled the medical workers between Third Avenue North and the Langone Health facilities along First Avenue. “Our ability to provide this [housing] was a way to help make things easy for them. They didn’t have to commute home or worry about exposing their family members,” says Glassman. “Those things help make a bad situation a little bit better.”