The First Semester of College During a Pandemic Is Surprising Civilized—But Is That Good?

Photo: Photo: Stocksy / PAFF
What I remember most about my first month at college is a foam party—you know, one of those fraternity events where you inexplicably mingle with coeds in a cloud of soapy foam—that I ill-advisedly attended. It probably goes without saying that these are not the memories college freshmen are making during a pandemic.

To get a sense of how they are handling a formative first year at college, I spoke to seven students at universities across the U.S. They each shared their experiences coping with various different safety protocols and logistics while trying to learn, meet new friends and lovers, and generally make the best use of their tuition. What I learned was both unexpected and inspiring.

An uncertain first semester of college during a pandemic

None of the students I spoke to considered deferring for a year so they wouldn't have to deal with strict protocols, relative safety risks, or the possibility of being sent home due to an outbreak. However, several did note that there was some uncertainty around whether or not they could travel to campus for the fall, and what it would look like if they did. "I just remember getting like 500 emails every single day with updates about how the school was going to run through the pandemic," recalled Muhlenberg College freshman Natalie Berger.

Most said their parents and guardians were supportive of the decision to move on campus, if a little nervous. "[My aunt] wasn't so happy about the idea of me going to college during the panfdemic, but she wasn't going to hold me back," Berger said. "It's definitely not a healthy lifestyle anyone's living, being stuck at home."

Two of the students I spoke with—Loyola University freshman Sydney Helmer and Northeastern freshman Olivia Hunter—had planned to study abroad this semester, but when their programs were canceled, they pivoted to joining the rest of their incoming class on campus. Both were disappointed, but adaptable. "I'm hopeful I can go abroad in the future," Hunter said. "I just know there will be so many more opportunities available to me after this is all over."

How campuses are keeping its students safe

Although each campus varied in its approach to safety, all schools seemed to be practicing extraordinary caution, according to the students.

For starters, most of the universities only allowed freshmen on campus or, in some cases, freshmen and sophomores. This means that many of the students I spoke with are finding themselves with a quarter- or half-capacity campus some compared to a "ghost town."

Some schools have been implementing and then rolling back restrictions with a gradual or tiered strategy. Northeastern University in Boston had incredibly strict policies for incoming freshmen. Hunter told me students were required to be tested before arriving to campus, then quarantined for two days, tested again, quarantined for another two days, and then tested a third time before being allowed freedom to interact and explore the city.

Berger, meanwhile, tells me that Muhlenberg, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, opened in phase one, which required that they only socialize with students who shared their bathroom. Then they moved to phase two, meaning they could socialize with anyone in their dorm, and is now in phase three, which allows students to socialize with anyone on campus. (Large gatherings are still prohibited in both cases, however.)

Others I spoke to, like Helmer at Loyola University New Orleans,  Duke University freshmen Charlie Burnett, and Colorado State University freshman Olivia Miller, told me they have standard protocols to follow in terms of how many people can gather in various spaces. At Duke, for example, Burnett said only three people are allowed in a dorm room at a time, and that this guideline has been pretty strictly enforced. Helmer told me each dorm room at Loyola is likewise allowed just one guest at a time, and Miller said that at Colorado State, they may be asked to mask up if a resident advisor sees them gathering in dorm rooms in numbers that seem risky. They're also technically not allowed to go to other dorms; however, she said no one really monitors this. They're more strict, she explains, in the gyms and dining halls, where only a controlled amount of people are allowed to gather at any given time.

There are some rules that are consistent at all of the universities our freshman attend. At each of the schools, students told me they are required to wear them in public spaces and are asked to put one on if they are spotted without. Also, all the students, no matter their institution, are required to use a symptom checker app every day. Burnett said Duke is pretty strict about it, and that if you don't fill it out daily, your student ID card—and the access it grants you into campus buildings—is deactivated. Helmer, on the other hand, told me that while Loyola students are supposed to check-in daily, she hasn't done it in awhile and there have been no consequences.

Most of the schools have implemented other testing, quarantine, and tracing measures, too. Burnett told me that when a student tests positive—and Duke students, he said, are tested at random regularly—they are immediately moved to a quarantine hotel and required to list everyone they've been in contact with. Those people are then also quarantined until testing protocols are completed. After coming in to contact with someone who tested positive, Burnett was ordered to move to a hotel until he was cleared. "The sheer isolation from being in a room alone for 10 days was a little tough," he said. 

Meanwhile, Loyola has been testing each dorm's wastewater for signs of the virus, Miller said. If any surface, students in the infected dorm are required to get tested.

How to go to class during COVID: 101

While I had assumed most classes would be held virtually even if students were living on campus, only Burnett is taking classes entirely online at Duke. The rest of the students attend classes that are hybrid, which offer a mix of in-person and virtual sessions, always in-person, or always online.

All students told me they prefer in-person classes, which makes sense to any professional adult who struggles to stay focused through endless hours of Zoom meetings. With that said, the flexibility can be nice. Miller told me that one of her classes at Loyola was scheduled for Friday evenings, but since the professor could choose to instead teach by Zoom, he posts his lectures earlier in the day so that he and his students don't have to be in class on a Friday night.

What campus parties and socializing actually looks like

While safety protocols have been mostly manageable for the students I spoke with, socializing, however, has proven a bit more difficult. Burnett told me he made a few friends during his first week at Duke and then stuck with them. Restrictions—and the fact that all of his classes are online—made it too difficult to meet new people. These friends lived in another dorm, however, which made hanging out with them difficult. He might go over there, for example, and find that there were already three people in the room, at which point he'd be unable to join. Plus, he said, he so badly didn't want to get contract-traced and quarantined again that it demotivated him from socializing.

While she's not as isolated, Miller said she mainly hangs out with her suite-mates at Loyola and people she knew prior to college. "If you have connections, you'll be fine," she said. "But it's pretty hard to meet new people."

Meredith Cohen, however, seems to have had a more positive experience with making new friends at Duke. Her dorm's common room happens to be near the entrance, so there's an opportunity for socializing every time you enter or exit the building. Still, she said, there's an added challenge to making friends under these circumstances. "I'm constantly evaluating, 'Am I comfortable with this? Should I bail? Where do I think this could end up? Do I think this is going to be safe?" she said. "Having to keep that part of your brain on the whole time while trying to make friends is difficult."

If they're not hanging in their dorm rooms, students will grab a bite together. If they remain on campus, the set-ups at the dining hall can be counter-productive, though. At Muhlenberg, tables in the dining hall seat four, Berger explained, and each individual seat has been partitioned off with plexiglass. "If someone is seated diagonally from you, forget about [being able to hear them]," she said.

But not all hope is lost for students who are trying to make connections. Berger described Muhlenberg as having a summer-camp feel, as a result of programming that includes outdoor movies and tented al fresco dining areas. Duke also has tried to make socializing outdoors comfortable, Burnett said, by adding tented areas and Adirondack chairs in common spaces.

As for any chance of a foam party from my day or even a regular house party, most of the students I spoke with said it's just not happening. Despite a few instances of naughty behavior—mostly off campus—for the most part gatherings are being kept small and civilized. And there's no FOMO about it. "I've had a really hard time adjusting to the workload," Berger said. "I'm actually really happy I don't have the pressure of parties right now."

Looking ahead to next semester

Because a number of universities planned to stagger attendance—for example, allowing freshmen to come in the fall and then replacing them with seniors in the spring (and requiring everyone else to take classes virtually)—many of the students I spoke with aren't sure they'll be back after this semester.

In some cases, however, highly effective testing and tracing protocols have kept the risk low enough that universities are rethinking their plans. Duke, for example, recently invited its freshmen back for the spring, and Berger told me there are rumors her class at Muhlenberg might get to stay, too. She's hoping for this outcome, and dreading having to go back home if it's required. "I thought it would be a lot more sad," said Berger. "But I'm having a pretty good time."

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