It was already late July when Johnny Antos, University of California Berkeley Haas business school class of 2022, decided not to sign a lease in Berkeley for the fall semester. Having found out classes would go remote, Antos figured “there wasn’t really any value” in living in the city. So he booked an Airbnb in Lake Tahoe, California, with his partner and her younger sister, a college undergraduate. Their plan is to stay until at least November.

Why Tahoe? “I have never been,” says Antos, who’d been living in New York before starting business school. “Everyone from the West Coast seems to love it, so it seemed like a good idea.” He’d ruled out more exotic locales in Hawaii, so as to remain in the same time zone as his classes. Tahoe further appealed because of its infrastructure. A popular tourist destination, the surrounding area would have gas stations and coffee shops, not to mention solid internet access and hiking trails.

Mountain biker on the Flume Trail at Lake Tahoe.
Student Johnny Antos decided to head to Lake Tahoe instead of living near campus © aaronj9 / Shutterstock

Alternatives to on-campus living

With many colleges and universities going either fully or partially remote because of COVID-19, students have been finding alternatives to on-campus living. While some fear inhabiting potential coronavirus hot spots or aim to save on housing by staying with family, others have decided to take advantage of their remote coursework by renting homes in locations perhaps more desirable than their college campuses or parents’ houses.

Not all students shared Antos’s time zone considerations when choosing locations for the semester. As the New York Times reported in August, groups of East Coast students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard booked rentals in Hawaii and Montana, respectively. For many students, the primary concern is maintaining a fulfilling social experience without in-person classes.

Professor Kerry Bowman, who studies medicine and bioethics at the University of Toronto – where students can choose between physical and virtual lessons – sees value in these group living situations.

“University is when people meet the largest amount of people and socialize for the first time on a truly adult level,” he says. “At least if you’re sharing a place…you have some of that.”

Still, Bowman expected more of his students to take advantage of the university’s online option. Instead, most wanted a “normal, full university experience, and that involves actually interacting with people,” he says. Lonely Planet spoke with several freshmen who’d opted to live in their college dorms, in spite of classes remaining online, for similar reasons.

A view of the beach with mountains in the background
Students are giving up on-campus life for remote-schooling destinations like Hawaii © Glowing Earth Photography/500px

School guidelines and house rules

Meanwhile, some colleges have loosened their guidelines on who’s allowed to live off-campus, driving more undergrads to rent houses with friends close to school. Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, stopped requiring freshmen and sophomores to live on campus this fall, leaving younger students scrambling to sign leases. At Connecticut College, about 173 students are living off campus. Normally, that number is close to zero.

For students not straying far from school, the quality of cheaper rentals tends to improve the further they get from affluent college towns. Charlotte Harris, another first-year student at Berkeley Haas, says housing options in Berkeley are pricey and cramped compared to where she and two classmates ended up moving in North Oakland – a move she may not have made if she was traveling between campus and home more frequently.

Living with peers during the pandemic also means agreeing on more stringent rules than those typically imposed by housemates. Reducing the spread of COVID-19 is, after all, a much graver concern than eating someone’s unlabeled yogurt. Detailed “COVID safety plans” are common in communal houses, as are mandated quarantines. “We’re all dating,” says Harris, “but none of us can date or exchange germs with more than one person at a time.”

Finding roommates and a destination

Antos initially tried to get others from his class excited about living remotely together, but he was met with “tepid” responses. Eventually, one who expressed interest also wanted to regularly host visitors at the Airbnb, which didn’t work for Antos. “We were hoping this would be a sort of corona bubble,” he says.

The price of Airbnbs in Tahoe kept falling over the summer, so Antos could ultimately afford to split a four-bedroom house close to the lake with just his partner and her sister (his partner works remotely) for around $4,200 a month.

Places like Tahoe also draw students looking for wide-open spaces, which are both more pleasant and less risky during a pandemic that’s easily spread by people being indoors and in close range of each other. According to the Times, Utah has been a popular destination for virtually learning college students because of the proximity to outdoor activities. Others opted for city living because it’s not something their suburban colleges normally offer. Some traveled even further.

500px Photo ID: 23308059 - Lviv is a beautiful ancient city in western Ukraine.
Student Matthew Pyskir is using this as an opportunity to study abroad ©Stramyk Igor/500px

Matthew Pyskir, a junior at University of Kansas, made the last-minute decision to travel to Lviv, Ukraine, and un-enroll from Kansas for the semester. He’s now studying at the Ukrainian Catholic University this fall.

“I don’t want to spend so much money on Kansas when it’s all going to be online,” he says.

In Ukraine, where there are around 2,400 new daily coronavirus cases compared to 35,000 in the US, Pyskir can have a freer student experience. He’s living alone in an apartment that costs $400 a month, having paid about twice that living close to campus last year.

Pyskir studies Slavic languages and had always wanted to spend a semester abroad. The pandemic presented the right opportunity. Back at University of Kansas, several of Pyskir’s friends have already contracted the coronavirus.

Pyskir’s parents still have concerns. “They're scared of me getting sick in Eastern Europe because the hospitals aren't necessarily up to Western standards,” he says. However, when Pyskir’s dad, who flew with him to get him settled in Lviv, saw how people in the country were so “cautious and organized” compared to the US, he felt better about his son’s decision.

COVID-19 has presented students with unparalleled uncertainty. Their housing choices reflect this – they’re short-term, and tend to emphasize flexibility. Antos, for one, doesn’t know if or when his school will resume in-person teaching. If he and his partner are still “untethered” after their Airbnb rental ends in November, they’re considering other places to stay next. “We could do Napa,” he says, “or explore some cool new spot we haven’t been to.”

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