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When college students had to clear out of their dorm rooms midway through the spring semester because of COVID-19, many schools refunded a portion of their housing fees.

If campuses close again during the upcoming fall semester, some North Carolina college students might not get housing refunds a second time.

At least two UNC System schools — UNCG and Western Carolina University — have told their students who plan on living on campus that they might not get housing refunds if the pandemic surges and universities close residence halls once again.

Both state universities recently issued revised housing contracts to students who plan to live in campus dorms in the fall — Western Carolina last week, and UNCG on Monday. Both schools have given students time to opt out of their 2020-21 housing contracts, which they signed earlier this year, and find another place to stay when classes begin in August.

UNCG on Monday told students that it “may not” issue housing refunds based on guidance from the UNC System office. By Tuesday afternoon, however, the university issued what it called a clarification. Instead of saying it wouldn’t issue refunds, UNCG told students that there’s a chance it might not rebate part of the housing fee if it closes dorms partway through the semester.

UNCG said it had based its initial no-refund position on advice from the UNC System. In its Tuesday afternoon statement, it said: “Consistent with UNC System guidance, we are advising our students of the possibility that refunds may not be available.”

A May 29 memo from Bill Roper, the UNC System’s interim president, told state university chancellors “to the extent possible ... (universities) should include language in student housing contracts that the university retains the discretion to close or restrict use of campus housing and to alter the schedule of housing services to preserve health and safety.” The memo, provided by the UNC System office Tuesday after the News & Record asked for it, doesn’t mention housing refunds.

In April, the UNC System refunded nearly $77 million to students required to leave campus housing a little more than halfway through the spring semester. North Carolina’s state universities also refunded nearly $42 million in meal plan monies that students hadn’t yet spent on food.

University housing revenues pay to maintain and operate campus residence halls. Many universities, including UNCG, also use dorm rents to pay off loans used to build new campus housing.

Initial reports that UNCG wouldn’t consider housing refunds at all prompted a UNCG student to start an online petition demanding rebates if schools close early as they did in the spring. By 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the petition titled “UNC System: Refund Housing in 2020-2021 If You Kick Us Out” had attracted nearly 13,500 signatures.

Laura Comino, the rising UNCG senior who started the Change.org petition, said she was “horrified” to hear that UNCG initially wouldn’t consider issuing refunds if it closes campus housing. She said late Tuesday that UNCG’s revised position “is not enough.”

“We risk losing a lot of money,” said Comino, a political science major from Charlotte who plans to live in campus housing come fall.

Comino said her family is well off and she has options if UNCG closes its campus before the end of the term. But she said some of her classmates are homeless or have unstable home lives and depend on college housing as a safe and reliable place to live. Without a refund, Comino said, students might have fewer good housing options in case of emergency.

UNCG’s initial announcement set off a lot of social medial conversations between UNCG students, Comino said. Some said they might take only online classes and live at home in the fall. Others are looking at off-campus apartments. And others, she said, “are panicking right now” because they don’t have someone to co-sign for an off-campus lease or don’t want to risk losing part of their housing payments.

“We understand the concerns of the UNC System,” Comino said. “But the UNC System exists because of their students. If they kick us out (of dorms without refunds), they continue to make money on the backs of the students who would be suffering.”

Western Carolina spokesman Bill Studenc said Tuesday that the university “has notified students that the institution retains the discretion to close or restrict the use of campus residence halls and change the schedule of housing services if needed for reasons of health and safety. WCU also has informed students that, in the event of residence hall closure or other changes to housing services, the university is not obligated to issue refunds or credits for housing payments.”

Reaction has been mixed, he said: Some understand the university’s financial burden, while others aren’t pleased with the change to the housing agreement.

Molly Kremidas of Winston-Salem, whose daughter attends WCU, is both understanding and disappointed. Her daughter plans to remain in university housing even though her family risks losing several thousand dollars in housing fees.

”She’s a senior and wants to spend her last year on campus, especially since she wasn’t there in the spring” Kremidas said. “But what’s the scenario if they have to pack up in a week or two weeks? They can’t answer what happens if you’re there 10 days and you have to turn around and go home.”

UNCG’s update

UNCG on Monday notified students who had signed up for campus housing for 2020-21 that it would not issue refunds if it closed dorms partway through the semester as it did in the spring.

On Tuesday, UNCG said that there is a “possibility that refunds may not be available.” Here is UNCG’s statement issued at 5 p.m.:

“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.”

Contact John Newsom at 336-373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.

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