The Kid Stays in the Dorm Room
On the ground with a college senior navigating classes and COVID
In mid-August, the last week before heading back to college after hunkering down with my family since March, my brother and I were ready to rip each other’s heads off over the smallest inconveniences. My mother was despondent, hating that our family’s quarantine was ending this way. (Turns out fighting is something people do before leaving one another; it makes the separations easier).
When I got to my apartment at Davidson College, I found that my best friend and apartment-mate was wearing a mask inside. This is despite the fact that I tested negative for COVID-19 right before arriving at school. The school requires we wear a mask outside our rooms, but we never discussed the need to wear one inside. I assumed she was doing this because my mask-wearing dad, who had not been tested, was moving me in. What I found out later was that my friend lived through a much stricter quarantine than my roommates and me because her mother is immunocompromised. Luckily we all tested negative post-move in, tensions melted, and we now have a mask-free residence.
Unlike some of my peers, I have always taken the virus seriously. I don’t know why people my age think they’re invincible, nor do I understand how they disregard their own family members and friends who feel, or are, vulnerable. Over the summer, I declined numerous invitations from friends who I knew were not being as cautious as they needed to be. I apologized for my absence and chose safety. I did not call them out for their bad behavior because I didn’t want to be that person.
Back on campus, it doesn’t feel like spring semester — which was cut short during March break — ever ended. We missed our formals, our pre-finals weekend extravaganza, and the chance to say goodbye to all of our friends. We finished the semester remotely, studying for the usual rounds of finals and writing term papers from our childhood bedrooms instead. I even took two virtual classes over the summer and had a remote internship. Yet we’re back, with more than half of our classes online, and I am already starting to write my senior thesis.
Davidson is a small school in North Carolina with just under 2,000 students. So luckily (or maybe I’m too optimistic?), the COVID situation seems easier to manage than it would be at a big state school like University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, two hours away. The UNC campus reopened with in-person classes mid-August and closed less than a week later when some 130 students tested positive for the virus. I also feel like the precautions Davidson has taken are more ambitious than other schools. We all got tested before arriving on campus, and all students get tested weekly. The school even tested the entire freshman class twice in one week after an outbreak scare. Like other schools, our class schedules have been reorganized as a hybrid of in-person and online versions to prevent traffic jams of students in hallways between classes. We can even order food ahead online and must track our symptoms and temperatures every day via an app. Though I sometimes forget to check in on the app every day, I cannot enter a dining facility without having done so — I often eat in my apartment, hence the forgetfulness.
As a senior, I was worried that the freshmen might get too excited about college freedom and behave recklessly; I had heard of a large gathering being busted in one of their dorm rooms during their orientation. Fraternities and sororities have become a big concern at many schools, which have reported uncontrolled parties that have resulted in COVID clusters. Davidson, however, has nonresidential Greek and eating houses on our small campus, making it impossible to host large parties at this time without getting caught. The organizations know they’d get into trouble the moment they sent out invites. It’s harder for the school to monitor students living off-campus, however, and I have seen some disconcerting Snapchat stories of small parties occurring there.
So far, I’m impressed. When students were moving in, cases spiked to 14. Since everyone has arrived, we are back down to only one active case (as of Sept 16). There are and will always be the irresponsible kids, but generally, most students are taking these protocols seriously. If they don’t, thanks to our Honor Code, someone will quickly call them out or report them.
Speaking with friends at other schools makes me realize we all feel like we are living in a kind of limbo with the possibility of sudden academic or residential disruption lurking behind the COVID curtain. At Savannah College of Art & Design, my friend explained that most classes are remote and there are single dorms with their own bathrooms but, since it’s an art school, studios and other facilities have to be used in person. Students have to note their daily symptoms on an app, and the school has set up a contact tracing system. My friend wonders, though, how seriously students will follow protocols throughout the semester. It made me wonder: will we all get lazy? She also is concerned about anti-maskers raiding SCAD’s open city campus and that such non-students could destroy “the safety net SCAD has put in place.”
At bigger schools, testing protocols are quite varied. Wake Forest University, with about 5,300 undergraduate students and 3,200 grad students, is performing random sample testing of several hundred students per week. My connection there thinks people are taking COVID-19 fairly seriously, but his professors are predicting there will be a switch to remote classes in the coming weeks. Like Davidson, Wake Forest is in North Carolina, which began a stay-at-home order on March 27 but started reopening May 8, with rules that were much laxer than phase-one openings in many Northern states.
A friend at Boston University, who just moved into her dorm, feels fairly safe, especially in Massachusetts, a state that handled the virus well. Students appear to be respecting protocol and there are no indications of a major spread. Like other schools, BU has limited the capacity of their dorms, so my friend’s eight-person suite holds just five students, and requires them to use a symptom-tracking app. Even with 17,000-plus undergraduate students, BU is managing to test students who are taking in-person classes twice a week.
Only one of the friends I interviewed did not feel safe on her campus. At SUNY Albany, she was shocked to hear many of her peers talk about attending parties. While SUNY Albany has been testing students in cohorts similar to Wake Forest, she said, “90 percent of people I’ve seen or heard talking are either unsafe around me or talk about being unsafe.” SUNY Oneonta just sent their students home after one week of classes, in which 300 students tested positive. My friend is worried that based on the behaviors she sees among her peers, her school may be next.
In the end, I believe it’s up to each student to keep their friends and themselves safe. If there are people disrespecting protocol, potentially causing COVID to continue to spread, I will choose not be around them. I am still able to see non-roommate friends while sticking to safe measures and we make the most of the times we have together. I feel as safe as I can and want to stay on campus all of senior year, and have an in-person graduation in the spring. With how things are going at my school right now, I am hopeful that these wishes will be fulfilled.