I was in a rehearsal room last March when we got the email that we were getting sent home. In a very surreal way, I heard people screaming in frustration and despair just down the hall. Everyone knows that college students had to pack their bags and go home, but schools are just starting to open again, even as numbers rise. Here’s what that’s like.
First of all, I’m from the South, where COVID is unfortunately not taken so seriously. Many, many, many of my friends headed off to school this fall and had their schools shut down and send everyone home again before my semester even started up in Boston. My heart goes out to them, but I’m glad their schools made the right decision, the safest decision given their circumstances.
Prior to returning to campus, I was really worried. Professors warned us, “we’re being told to prep our syllabus for when students get sick and can’t attend class.” In all honesty, opening schools when cases are so much higher than they were back in March seemed like a desperate cash grab. I understand the desire to go back to normal and I’m right there with everyone who’d rather get this whole thing over with, but the numbers are sobering. According to the CDC, there have been over 250,000 new cases in the past seven days.
I began to wonder if each school had someone sitting in a high up office somewhere who gets to pick a number. A number, maybe of how many students have to test positive before they shut down, maybe even a number of how many students have to lose their battle with COVID, a number unthinkable.
I am grateful for the decisions and steps my school has made to keep us safe. We are all tested weekly and students who wanted to were able to take all of their classes online from home. This is not the case for all schools. I have spoken to and read about students who were not given a choice, who had to return to campus, students whose schools hid test result data, students who were told they could stay home, but that they’d have to give up their scholarship. A large majority of students are being put in unthinkable positions this semester.
This is not to say our struggle is unique. The whole world is battling something we never could have imagined. This is simply an account of the experience I am most familiar with.
My experience this semester has been different, to say the least. I was scheduled to go abroad, but the program was cancelled less than a month before the semester started. I scrambled to find housing and classes after other students had done so months ago, and I am grateful that my school was able to help me do this.
I am now sitting in a dorm, by myself. Our residence capacities have been extremely lowered. A large majority of students don’t have a roommate, or two roommates might share a room meant for three people. Additionally, students who live in one dorm building are not allowed to visit friends who live in other dorm buildings. Students are restricted to hanging out with people in the same building as them, or finding another place to meet up with friends.
Our dining hall has gone from two floors full of tables to some scattered booths and chairs. You enter a one-way line past all the dining stations and collect takeout boxes into a large paper bag that you then take with you wherever you decide to eat that day. Very few people choose to remain in the dining hall for their meal.
Quite honestly, I am routinely shocked at how much our population density has decreased. We are a small school of just under 4,000 undergraduate students but I am so used to seeing our hallways and hangout spaces packed. This is now highly uncommon. I have yet to figure out where everyone went, whether they are electing to stay in their rooms more often, finding off campus locations to meet with friends, or not staying on campus at all. Nevertheless, it is a ghostly version of our usual bustling campus.
As an arts school, many clubs are struggling to adapt their projects to social distancing guidelines. I am on the production team for a musical this semester. Guidelines for singing at our school is that individuals must be thirty-seven feet apart. This is no small task, so we have elected to stream the show rather than attempt a live performance. Film and television crews are facing limitations to how many people can be on set at once, and I have no insight into how online dance classes are going, but I wish them the best with tackling that endeavour!
When it comes to classes, we are offered a variety of options. Some classes are all online, some are all in person, and many are what have been deemed “hybrid” classes. This means that classes meet in person some days, and online other days. While I acknowledge there are not many other options, I truly dislike online classes. It’s tough to keep focus, there are often technical difficulties, and breakout rooms are very often useless for learning. This is not to say I’d prefer in person classes, where everyone is masked and the desks are placed strategically six feet apart, which makes it difficult to hear the professor and extremely difficult to collaborate with classmates. Of course, these are the best options right now. However, that does not mean they can’t be frustrating to students.
Overall, it’s a stressful time to be a college student. It’s a stressful time to be anyone. However, it’s important to note that schools where students are following the rules, wearing masks at all times, and not throwing parties, are the schools that get to stay open. Not to mention, those students are the ones making sure they stay safe, their friends stay safe, and their families stay safe. None of this is ideal but we just have to remember the safer we are, the sooner this is over.