By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Region – For some, it’s been a deluge of email updates. For others, it’s been early flights home and semesters to be finished learning on computers.
Either way, the college students who call Central Massachusetts home have seen campus life fundamentally changed by the fast-moving Coronavirus outbreak reaching most corners of the country and the world. Now, many of those students have since left campus altogether.
“At school, people make a lot of jokes about it,” said Olivia Tomyl, a Hudson resident who attends Westfield State University, days before her campus closed March 12. “But I know that some people are actually really concerned.”
As cases surge nationwide, almost every aspect of public life has been scaled back or erased altogether for fear of spreading COVID-19. That means, on college campuses, the very closeness that many students love has grown increasingly hazardous in a world focused on social distance.
One of the first cases in the entire US came at Arizona State University in late January. Massachusetts detected its first case a few weeks later, in February, at UMass Boston.
Aware of the inherent dangers that possibly led to those cases, colleges were quick to act when diagnosesis specifically in Boston skyrocketed around March 9.
First, Amherst College sent its students home. Then Harvard marked the first Boston school to follow suit.
Thirty-three schools made announcements of their own in the 48 hours that followed. By March 13, more than a third of all Massachusetts colleges were closed, some for a few weeks, some for the rest of the spring semester. As many as 300,000 students were headed home or, already on spring break, resolved to stay home for the foreseeable future.
“It’s generally pretty concerning…” said Pat Fortuna, another Hudson resident, who attends Arizona State University, which closed on March 11, the day after he spoke to the Community Advocate. “Every person I know has travelled home by plane for spring break, and we all have to go back to this highly populated student community with god only knows what germs.”
Reflecting on what was a week of fast moving cancellations, many local students said fear on campus was palpable, manifesting in panic bought Purell and hours spent pacing hallways on their phones, calling parents to schedule trips home as some saw effective eviction dates land in their email inboxes.
In some places, students felt abandoned as administrators worked to make decisions behind closed doors.
“I do feel like they should be doing something or even send an email out to say that they’re working on something,” Tomyl said of her school’s leaders before they announced their cancellation of classes.
As bad as things recently were for some domestic students, the situation had been even more dire days earlier for those studying abroad. Many schools amended or cancelled planned trips to hard hit areas days before they turned their attention to their home campuses. Some pulled students already abroad back home. Olivia Smith, a Hudson High School graduate now at Endicott College, is one of those students.
She was just five weeks into a semester in Florence, Italy when her college abruptly booked her a flight back to Boston. Before leaving, she saw COVID-19 sweep across Italy.
Outside a nearby hospital, at one point, doctors in hazmat suits stood by what Smith described as a hastily erected large tent. Smith wondered if it would be used for quarantines.
“[It] gave me an uneasy feeling walking by,” she said.
For all the anxiety, though, students are mostly not bashing the decisions their colleges made.
Tomyl says she understands the predicament her school was in and acknowledged that, even for her, the switch to online learning will be a difficult one. She learns better in person.
Smith says she was initially angry and heartbroken to have lost what she says was her only opportunity to study abroad in college. That mood softened, however, when she saw Italy lock itself down days after she left.
“I do feel much more safe now being away from the hundreds and hundreds of people I would walk by every day wearing masks,” she said.
COVID-19 surged, leaving college students at home, abroad, and elsewhere in the country to wait for the latest developments. Some shut their doors. A few holed up in quarantine. But still more dealt with a simple ambient sense of emotional discomfort. There was anxiety in the air, many students said.
Now, many of those students are home.
**Note: Dakota is a student at Emerson College, which recently cancelled in-person classes in favor of online ones. Emerson currently has no coronavirus cases on campus and is allowing students to remain in dorms.**