Study in paradise? Mainland students are being recruited for a ‘college bubble’ in Waikiki

Updated: Aug. 10, 2020 at 9:46 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Community concern is quickly spreading over proposed plans for a so-called “college bubble” at a Waikiki hotel.

Reports say two Princeton graduates, Lane Russell and Adam Bragg, co-founded The U Experience. The idea is that college students would fly to designated hotels and conduct distance learning from their respective universities while earning degrees remotely, from within the secured bubble.

The U Experience is reportedly moving along with their plans at two hotels; one in Arkansas, and the other — Park Shore Hotel in Waikiki.

That’s upsetting many Hawaii residents who say inviting college students to an island during a pandemic is not the right thing to do while public schools and local universities struggle to figure out how to safely welcome students of all ages back to campus.

“I don’t think they would want a bunch of people coming to their Ivy League college in New Jersey,” said Diamond Head resident Stephen Escobedo.

A petition on opposing the program has already gained traction online, collecting more than 9,000 signatures.

Lexi Figueroa, a college student herself, helped launch the petition.

“I’m a college student right now and I know how college students are. Especially if this is your vacation away from a pandemic, you’re obviously going to want to leave your hotel room,” Figueroa said. “We need to stop these plans immediately.”

In a recent interview with CNN, Russell said the idea is aimed at giving students the social interactions in a school setting that they are missing out on due to distance learning.

“This is about serious learning, but we’re letting the colleges take care of that,” he said.

“What we see our value being here is giving the students an opportunity to work with other students and to actually live out that traditional college experience because we do think that has a lot of value as part of that educational experience,” he added.

Russel says safeguards are in place to protect the local community and students alike. Students would be pre-tested for COVID-19 and must follow strict guidelines while on campus, including abiding by quarantine mandates. The program’s online handbook says in part, “ student will be allowed to leave the campus to purchase goods, essential or non-essential.”

But later in the handbook, it says students may be allowed to leave only for ‘U Experience authorized’ excursions.

The websites describes their Hawaii location as including “options for day trips to private islands, beachfront rec sports, and DJ’d pool parties. The guest speaker series will break up the monotony of coursework and hiking excursions to Diamond Head will get your weekends started right. A lavish online learning experience is calling.”

Kelly Sanders, Vice President of Operations at Park Shore Hotel, said students will be allowed to engage in activities once they complete their quarantine.

“Once the group meets the 14-day quarantine, they’re really able to do just like everybody else here in the state of Hawaii,” Sanders said.

Sanders said hotel staff will be strictly enforcing all state and county mandates.

“They would get a one-time key access for their room. They’ll have to go into their room, we’ll deliver and arrange food that would go up to their rooms for those 14 days. If they leave, they wouldn’t be able to get back into their room. So, we would be tracking anyone who would break quarantine for any reason,” said Sanders.

On Monday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he was aware of the plan, but no formal approval has been given. Caldwell says the state has been interested in the “bubble” idea of travel, but re-iterated that students would not be allowed out and about on Oahu.

“Right now, if college students came in and were staying at a hotel, they would have to quarantine for 14 days just like everybody else and they couldn’t go to the beaches and they couldn’t go to bars and they would have to comply with all the other orders that are in place,” Caldwell said.

“We’ll be limiting their exposure to possible sources of contagion,” Russel told CNN. “Likewise we do see this as something where, despite being in the middle of a significant health crisis, we are also kind of in the early stages of a significant mental crisis.”

The U Experience handbook says there is a zero tolerance policy for students who break the rules and leave campus.

Trusting college students is one thing. Some simply doubt the state’s ability to track visitors.

“I’m not confident at all,” said Diamond Head resident Sarah Hike, who previously returned from a trip to the mainland. “I got a text message my second day back asking if I was following quarantine and I said yes but that was the only thing that happened. I could have gone and done whatever I wanted. I didn’t. But I could have. So, I’m not confident.”

Applications are being accepted online. No word on how many students have signed up to participate.

Hawaii News Now reached out to The U Experience for further details, but have not yet heard back.

This story may be updated.

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