When University of Pittsburgh senior Stana Topich returned to campus in early August amid the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t to the 19-story freshman dorms where she had expected to close out her college experience as a resident assistant (RA). Instead, she moved into the Residence Inn Pittsburgh Oakland/University Place, a newly renovated three-star hotel with an indoor pool and stylish suites.

Along with two nearby hotels, the property is exclusively hosting Pitt students this semester, with masks required and capacity limitations in place. The school says it’s working with area hotels to “de-densify” campus housing and help reserve some dorms for quarantining and testing. The hotel housing comes at no extra cost to students, the University of Pittsburgh told The Washington Post.

Housing block agreements between universities and hotels are enabling a return to campus across the United States. For hotels, the partnerships are bringing back business during a time when decreased bookings have meant furloughed workers. But some students are worried the new normal could be an isolating experience.

The University of Pittsburgh is utilizing the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center hotel to house students for the upcoming school year. (Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

“When I first moved in, walking into this super grand lobby … I felt like I was in a movie, kind of like ‘Eloise at Christmastime,’” Topich said. But the allure wore off when she realized that her senior year would not be the same. “The best thing about living in the residence halls is being able to walk around the floor when everyone has their door open, and, as weird as it sounds, running into people in the bathroom and striking up a conversation,” she said.

Graduate Hotels, a chain of 26 college-town properties across the United States, says it has welcomed the new business and now has over 1,000 students living in more than a dozen of its hotels. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students will make up the majority of the guests at chain’s location there for the rest of the semester.

“We take great pride in being able to provide a solution to parents and students,” Graduate Hotels President David Rochefort said. The hotel chain partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to develop its new cleaning guidelines, and it said the other properties hosting students include the Graduate Knoxville, for the University of Tennessee, and the Graduate Cincinnati, for the University of Cincinnati.

The trend has spread throughout hotel chains and states. Emerson College in Boston has taken over eight floors of the nearby W Hotel to house 192 students after partially reserving sections of one residence hall, the Paramount Center, for quarantine rooms. The University of Pittsburgh says that 1,100 first-year students have been assigned to the three hotels that are operating exclusively for its students: two separate Residence Inns and the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center.

The Wyndham’s general manager told The Washington Post that it welcomed the opportunity to house students because it brought back dozens of furloughed Wyndham employees.

“Quite frankly, we suffered greatly from mid-March until the summer when we secured this business [from Pitt]” Wyndham Pittsburgh University Center general manager Coleman Hughes said. “It’s meant the ability to bring 25 team members back to work, which has been really positive for them and their families.”

Pitt, Emerson, Wyndham and Graduate Hotels all said their institutions have created joint health and safety protocols to protect returning staff, including limiting interactions between students and requiring masks in all indoor areas — except for when students are in their own rooms alone or with their assigned roommate.

Emerson College requires weekly tests for everyone on campus, on top of a mandatory test every student must take before their socially distanced move-in. The college of 3,700 has more than 2,000 students living on its campus in downtown Boston. In the W, students are relegated to their own designated elevators and entrances, and they are not permitted in sections of the hotel that may be open to non-university guests.

“We might increase testing to twice-weekly,” Emerson President Lee Pelton said. “I think it’s fair to say that almost all colleges and universities in the U.S. have spent half a year reinventing themselves” to allow students to return to campus.

Pitt senior Topich said her focus is on ensuring that freshman residents don’t gather in groups larger than the six people permitted in rooms, or the two people permitted in elevators. She said that while most students head outside to nearby parks when they want to socialize, she can’t control what they do “behind closed doors.”

Nicole Poitras, an RA at the W Boston, said Emerson students are limited to four students per room and that, so far, her residents seem to be taking the rule seriously. “We have the second floor mezzanine space, usually the hotel conference space, open to us with distancing and masks,” she said. “That’s the equivalent of what would normally be our common room.”

Both Poitras and Topich said that despite the new measures in place, and despite fears of loneliness, the hotels have begun to feel like home.

“I walk around and see people doing laundry and coming back from class, and it’s starting to feel like a normal residence hall,” Poitras says. “And that’s really awesome, because I was worried I was going to feel isolated in some way … but I don’t. I know who my residents are here and we’re all together.”

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