Navigating college through the COVID-19 pandemic


My eyes track slowly across a blurry screen as my professor quizzes us on Spanish vocab between bouts of lost internet connection. Regardless, classmates don’t seem to be paying much attention. They are frozen in their own blue light haze after what has felt like an exceptionally long Zoom class. 
The whir of the washing machine picks up behind me and my roommate, who quarantined in Vermont (I graduated from MUHS) with me for the last two months of our spring semester. She sets down her figure drawings to begin a three-hour-long art critique online. 
I have done my best to clean up for class, even if that simply means throwing my hair in a ponytail and putting on a sweater (sweatpants stay on), but many of my classmates seem to have given up. My screen is made up of sweatshirt-clad figures, half-human, half-couch. Some of them hadn’t even bothered to leave their beds. 
This was the flow of most of our days since leaving campus at St. Lawrence University and transitioning to online learning. The couch served as our office while we passed headphones back and forth between calls, navigated turbulent Wi-Fi, and often spent most of the day scrolling and clicking. However inconvenient online college was, my roommate and I got incredibly lucky — we had each other to work alongside and, naturally, to complain to, which made everything easier. 
It was in my plan before COVID-19 struck the U.S. that I would be taking the fall of 2020 away from campus to pursue other passions. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel for my classmates and incoming first-years, and their dilemma of whether to return to school next fall. Is it really worth the time and money if it isn’t going to be the typical college experience? 
Colleges and universities are in a serious bind deciding whether or not to open campuses in the fall. According to school officials, Middlebury College plans to open, but no final decision has yet been made. Current conversations are they hope to have a hybrid of online and in-person classes to help with social distancing, and keep faculty and campus resources available to students. 
Other area college officials I talked with said they’re waiting until late June or early July to make any final decisions.
Fellow 2018 Middlebury Union High School graduates Helen Anderson and Megan Townsend also spoke to me about what their fall semesters will look like. 
Anderson, who just completed her sophomore year at Scripps College in California, says they have yet to hear what Scripps will do officially. Ideally the school plans to open its campus, but will implement small outdoor classes, changes in the dining halls and minimized contact in dorms. This option seems to be what many colleges are aiming for. 
Anderson told me in an interview that she “signed up for a specific college experience, and next fall it will not be that same experience,” a common feeling among many students I’ve talked to. In reference to online classes needed to complete this spring’s coursework, Anderson says that if she had a choice she “would not choose to do that again.” She is considering options for taking the fall off and feels confident she has good options to pursue. 
Townsend, a rising junior at Syracuse University says that after receiving an extensive email on guidelines for the fall — mandatory masks, COVID screening prior to arriving on campus, limitations on visitors, and decreased class size are just some examples — she is considering taking a semester off. 
For many incoming first-years, one pressing question is whether to take a gap year. Is it worth starting your higher education virtually, the thinking goes. And if you do decide to take a gap year, what will be available to you? 
There are a couple of different scenarios that come to mind. 
One idea is for incoming students to defer and direct their learning to a school that is designed to be online. Community College of Vermont is designed to run courses virtually and could be an appropriate place for Vermont graduates to get general education requirements out of the way at a significantly cheaper cost. 
Middlebury College is accepting deferment requests for incoming students on a rolling basis until July 6. If a student defers, they cannot fully enroll in another school, but they can accumulate some credits from CCV or other schools, says Dean of Admissions Nicole Curvin. Credits transfer differently across departments, she said, so it is best to speak with an adviser before taking courses outside of Middlebury College. 
UVM has many resources on its website for transferring credits, and Saint Michael’s College also accepts outside credits, but it is always best to talk to an adviser before making any decisions. 
Another scenario for incoming students is to take the full gap year. What is important to keep in mind is that finding jobs will be more challenging. But if you are gung-ho to serve your community through manual labor or possibly to join a branch of what qualifies for national service in this country, such as AmeriCorps or others, then the gap year could be a meaningful use of your time. 
With this information in mind, what I found during my first two years in higher education is that the campus atmosphere proves to be critical in classroom engagement and academic success. 
Most of our pre-pandemic school days were spent bouncing between labs, classes and meetings scattered across campus. It was the breaks in between, where I would walk across the green and watch the squirrels, grab a cup of tea at the cafe, or chat with a classmate in passing, that made a packed school day productive and engaging.           
Things were not as engaging during our two months of sequestered online learning. The breaks that came naturally by switching buildings were no longer there and my roommate and I often found ourselves immobile for hours at a time — necks stiff, vision blurred and moods swinging. 
There are many valid reasons that students would choose to take online classes, but for those who are not in a rush to graduate and want to make the most out of their college years, there is little reason to rush into a situation where online classes are a big part of the daily routine and separation from your classmates is part of the safety protocols. I am prepared to stay local this fall and put myself to work. Other classmates are hoping to travel or find jobs near their college towns to be closer to friends. 
However you choose to approach the coming semester of your higher-ed career, keep in mind that you are not alone. Everyone, from incoming freshmen to graduating seniors, is attempting to navigate COVID-19 and there is no “one choice fits all.” We are figuring this out together, and the challenges our classes have faced will prepare us for all that is here and all that is to come. Let us find strength and patience in our classmates, and opportunity and perseverance in times of adversity. 

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