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'Everyone's losing': College campus closures a stark reality for students

“I'd take Corona over listening to my mom nag at me every day for a month," one student said.
Image: New Report: Half Of Recent College Graduates Under- Or Unemployed
This week, University of California, Santa Barbara, University of Michigan, and dozens of others schools moved classes online. Amherst, Wesleyan College, Grinnell College, and Harvard University, took it a step further, ordering students to leave campus for the remainder of the semester.Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

An eerie quiet crept over Amherst College’s usually bustling Massachusetts campus on Monday when students learned that in-person classes have been cancelled for the rest of the semester and they have to vacate school grounds by March 16.

“We got the email and we all just sort of sat there in silence for a little while,” Amherst senior Emma Swislow said.

Swislow, 22, described the decision as a “big shock.” She was hoping to spend the next few months wrapping up her time at the small liberal arts school and begin saying her goodbyes.

“Now we've had to do that in a matter of days,” she said.

Amherst is one of many colleges that has decided to close its campus and move to remote classes as the new coronavirus — and the fear surrounding it — spreads.

This week, University of California, Santa Barbara, University of Michigan, and dozens of others schools moved classes online. Like Amherst, Wesleyan College, Grinnell College, and Harvard University, took it a step further, ordering students to leave campus for the remainder of the semester.

The universities say the decision to close is meant to stem the spread of the virus on campuses where students live in close quarters and aren’t too likely to heed public health warnings. But telling students to head home and take classes online for the rest of the semester isn’t as simple as it sounds, and for many students, it feels more devastating than contracting the virus itself.

Tufts University emailed students on the evening of March 10 that their spring break would be extended through March 25 and that classes would move online afterward. Students were told to move out of their residence halls and depart campus by March 16.

When the news hit, students began “freaking out,” said junior Michael Wilkinson.

“There's been many people crying, hugging each other,” Wilkinson, 21, said. “They're not sure if they're going to see their friends for quite some time.”

Wilkinson, who has never taken an online class before, doesn’t know if he’ll be able to learn the material as well via video conference and thinks the overall quality of instruction will go down.

“I'm concerned that this semester isn't going to be as academically rich as it could have been,” Wilkinson said.

Swislow, a double major at Amherst in English and Geology, shares those fears. She has labs every week, where they use microscopes and inspect rocks. Her professor is trying to come up with alternative ways of instruction, but she isn’t sure if it will work.

Carrieanne Mamba, a sophomore at University of California, Santa Barbara, is anxious over what’s to come.

UCSB told students this week that classes would be moved online through at least the end of April and recommended students prepare to be away from campus until then.

Because Mamba, 20, is from Massachusetts, her thoughts immediately turned to the idea of moving home and essentially losing independence until May. She’s stuck choosing between Massachusetts and California, which are both in a state of emergency.

“I really do not want to stay with my parents doing nothing for a month,” Mamba said in an email. “I'd take Corona over listening to my mom nag at me every day for a month.”

Beyond being trapped in her childhood bedroom, Mamba’s decision has financial ramifications.

She doesn’t want to be paying thousands of dollars to take classes online, when she already has to pay rent in California. Now, she's considering taking cheaper online courses at a community college.

Many students around the country think the decision to close campuses doesn't consider the needs of low-income students. Not everyone on a college campus, no matter how elite, has a safe home to return to, and some can’t afford the trip back home.

Some schools, like Harvard, are saying their financial aid office can offer assistance, but how comprehensive that help will be is unclear. At other schools, like MIT, students have launched mutual-aid Google Docs, where they are raising funds and crowdsourcing spare rooms and storage for students who need help moving out last-minute.

Amherst extended its move-out deadline to March 18 after student organizing, and is allowing students to petition to stay on-campus. But this policy — which could provide relief to some students — has also created what senior Julian Brubaker called an “impossible situation.”

He said that while he has reasons to stay, other people could have better reasons, and he’s wrestling with potentially taking away someone’s spot. At the same time, he doesn’t want to leave an institution and community that has been so foundational to him for nearly four years.

“The reality is very few students will be able to stay under this kind of policy,” Brubaker, 22, said.

All the while, he and his classmates are sad about the sudden end of their final semester. Students are realizing they have to pack in goodbyes to friends and professors in the next week.

Swislow is trying to spend as much time with her friends as possible, taking walks around campus and checking things off their bucket list. The idea of Amherst cancelling commencement is difficult to swallow, but increasingly likely, as large gatherings throughout the country and world are being banned.

Pete Zheng, a graduate student at Columbia University, where classes will be online until March 27, is grateful his school is being proactive. Zheng, 24, commutes to campus, and has been terrified to take the subway every day.

He knows the move to online instruction feels extreme and said he hopes it's not long term, but feels like dark times call for drastic policies. Plus, he doesn’t think Columbia is happy about the move either.

“Everyone's losing right now,” Zheng said.