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Harvard’s college students contemplate return to campus

A lot has changed due to the global pandemic affecting people’s livelihoods, jobs, and education. Now, Harvard’s college students, who were sent home in early spring, are facing concerns about returning to school in the fall as the virus continues to spread.

Although many colleges have been vague about the details of reopening their campuses, students have heard that major changes are being made to follow state and federal guidelines for health and safety. The biggest changes colleges have decided so far seem to be regarding how to hold classes, whether that be in person, online, or a hybrid of both.

For instance, Kaia Bishop, a Class of 2022 student at Emerson College, told the Press that classes at Emerson will start online as students move in and will transition to in-person classes until Thanksgiving break. After Thanksgiving, classes and finals will be online to limit travel. Jack Donaldson, who will be attending Clarkson University, said that his school is following a similar route “to avoid a predicted second surge of cases.” However Chloe Fitzgibbons, a Class of 2023 student at Boston College, said that BC is so far opening as planned, and changes to campus and courses are yet to come.

Other schools have decided to prioritize certain courses and groups of students for in-person classes, while holding others online. Suzy Opalka, who just graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and will be going back in the fall for grad school, explained that classes at WPI will likely be a hybrid of in-person and online, with labs prioritized for in-person status, and she has heard rumors that grad classes may be online. For Opalka, this is a concern. “[WPI] is putting too much emphasis on incoming freshmen,” she said, “At any other school this might be OK, but it isn’t great for a tech school. I think they should prioritize the upperclassmen who do need labs more than incoming freshmen.”

Similarly, Christopher Thornton, a Class of 2023 student at UCLA, said that UCLA “currently estimate[s] that 15-20% of classes will be in person (labs and other classes where it would make sense)” and that he plans to alter his course load as necessary. The fact that certain courses of study rely on in-person instruction and materials only available on campus is of particular concern across the board.

Phoebe Clark, a Class of 2023 student at The New School at Parsons, expressed this worry as an art student. “The school has some really incredible facilities, such as wood shop, metal studio, ceramics, casting, printmaking, laser cutting, and CNC machines that everybody uses. Hopefully, they’ll be open to students in one way or another, since they’re one of the best aspects of the school,” she said. Clark further added that a lack of access to these facilities may lead her to not attend Parsons this fall. She said, “Depending on what the fall plan looks like, I and many of my friends have been contemplating taking a gap year. The tuition is not cheap and the main reason why I’m attending the school is because of the location and the facilities provided that make it worth it.”

Bishop expressed a similar sentiment as a film student. Since Emerson is holding in-person classes for most of the fall semester, Bishop said, “I am grateful that we can return to campus, especially as a film student, because that means that the production classes will be in person and we will have access to all the equipment that Emerson has.”

Safer dining, social distancing

Beyond academics, campus life at colleges this fall is also likely to look very different, since changes have to be made to accommodate safer dining and social distancing. For instance, Nick Eliyesil, who will be transferring to Westfield State, explained: “The changes that have been made are a lot of the classes will be online, the dining hall is going to be takeout only, and they claim the residence hall is going to be de-densified. Everyone will have to wear a mask outside of their rooms and they’ll have to social distance outside if they are taking a class that’s not online.”

WPI will also have housing changes, Opalka explained. She said that WPI will no longer be housing freshmen in triple dorm rooms and that upperclassmen will have the option to move to less dense housing if living on campus. Furthermore, to limit student interactions, “Everyone living in dorms will be grouped into what they are calling pods, which will be made up of about 15 students,” Opalka explained. “These pods will be who they can spend time with.”

For those living off campus, the virus has caused even more challenges. Clark said, for example, “Before the pandemic uprooted everybody from the city, I was planning on finding an apartment as soon as the semester ended and living in Brooklyn, working over the summer and just collaborating with my friends. Now, I not only have to just find an apartment, I have to take into account commuting to and from classes and the safety procedures of the subway and living in New York during a pandemic.” Although Thornton plans to return to UCLA, he said, “On-campus housing is being restricted in order to allow for a lower density of students … [and] the housing cost for all options has increased significantly.” As Thornton wasn’t able to get housing on campus, he will have to find an apartment as well.

Lingering concerns

That being said, interviewees had mixed reactions to their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and their levels of concern about returning to campus in the fall differed. Fitzgibbons said that BC has been sending email updates and has a coronavirus website, but that some uncertainty remains. “While they do provide information, I think a definitive call on scheduling would alleviate a lot of uncertainty that people are feeling. Personally, I’m excited at the prospect of going back to campus. Even though I know it’s going to look a lot different from this past year, I really am looking forward to it,” she said.

Opalka also plans on returning to school, saying: “I think I do plan on returning in the fall … I’m mostly waiting for the announcement from WPI about their plan. I also live close enough that I can make my mind up pretty last minute.” She explained that she will at least be returning to Worcester, as she has an apartment off campus and will be starting an internship in manufacturing.

On the other hand, Tim Eliyesil, a student at Lesley University, said that his school hasn’t made any decisions for the fall semester yet, but that he relies on in-person classes and feedback as an illustration major and is concerned about being able to adhere to social distancing. “My dorm was relatively small and it wouldn’t be easy to 6-foot social distance from my roommate. The whole floor also shares two bathrooms and like four sinks, which doesn’t seem easy. Ideally, I wouldn’t go back in the fall because of concerns of the virus and drop in quality of the classes if a lot of them are online,” he said.

Even if staying healthy at school is possible, students are worried about spreading the virus at home. “My only concern would be bringing sickness home undetected,” Donaldson said, a concern that may seem all too real to Clark, whose parents had both contracted the virus. “However,” Donaldson added, “I have the option of self-quarantining in my own home and limiting contact with my parents for the recommended amount of time. Frankly I’m very excited to meet new people. It’s an exciting prospect after a long hiatus from social interaction.”

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