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Students React to the Closure of Campus Amid COVID-19 Threat

Disclaimer: All interviews for this piece took place either over the phone or via email. 

On Saturday March 14 at 3:23pm Beloit College President Scott Bierman sent an email to the campus community with the subject line “COVID-19 Important Change: Moving to Distance Learning.” The email announced that students will not be returning to classrooms for the latter half of the Spring 2020 semester, and that following mid term break on March 23, all classes “will be taught at a distance” in response to the current COVID-19, often called the novel coronavirus, pandemic. The move came after the Beloit College COVID-19 Task Force announcement on March 11 that initially announced an extended Spring Break for the college followed by a week of online courses. 

Along with the move to online learning, the most crucial aspect of Bierman’s email included instructions for students living on campus. Bierman wrote that “all students are expected to be away from campus by March 22 unless they are unable to be elsewhere.” Many students had already applied to remain on campus during the extended spring break, and Bierman wrote that international students or those with “unique circumstances” would be allowed to stay in the residence halls while taking classes from a distance. Bierman acknowledged in the email the short timeframe available for students to return to Beloit to pack up their rooms and stated that storage would be available for students’ belongings and shipment could be used for academic items. A form link was included in the email to direct students to sign up for a time to return to campus and move out. Bierman also confirmed that payment for housing would be adjusted for housing and food services, but that since classes will still take place online tuition would not be adjusted.

Along with updates on classes and the cancellation of public events on campus was news concerning commencement. A decision on the format of commencement, Bierman wrote, would be finalized by April 15. President Bierman acknowledged the physical loss of the graduating senior class of 2020 in the conclusion of the email, writing that, “this is not how any of us could have imagined your last two months as a Beloit student. I am so sorry that this is the way the world has turned. We are thankful beyond measure that you were on campus for so much of the last four years. We are all lucky that you are a Beloiter now and will be part of the Beloit family forever.”

Beloit’s campus closure is part of a nationwide wave of university closures in an effort to prevent an exponential increase in infections and hospitalizations. The decision means that many teams and classes had their last gatherings the week before midterm break, unaware that it was for the final time. Senior students will not have a chance to say goodbye to their friends, classmates, teammates, coaches, and professors in person, and will be moving permanently away from their college campus months ahead of schedule. 

Families and students remain in limbo about what comes next as the number of cases in the United States reached over 3,000 as of Sunday March 15. COVID-19 is now known to cause flu-like symptoms and can lead to cases of bilateral pneumonia in elderly patients or those who are immunocompromised. While the overall fatality rate of the new coronavirus is around two to four percent, the percentage may be as high as eighteen percent for patients over 80 years of age, according to Vox. Ventilators and respiratory support have been required for admitted patients, which is why Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and hospitals have been overwhelmed in Italy, where the average age of deceased patients is 81 and 60 percent of the country is over the age of 40. 

During these sudden changes in daily life, many are at the mercy of the decisions of local leaders or government officials to determine how or when they may travel. While there are many opinions shared via social media in this modern age, the voice of these affected individuals has largely remained undocumented in the daily news cycle. 

“I was really overwhelmed and stressed,” Beloit College senior YJ Na’20 told the Round Table. Na is a co-director of the Programming Board (P-Board) part of the Office of Student Engagement and Leadership and is an international student from South Korea. “This is, after all, our last semester. I wasn’t sure how my classes would end up being. I had several special projects that would require presentations. I think my first thought was ‘will I be able to graduate on time?’… The last semester of senior year is already a stressful time because there is so much uncertainty.” 

When asked whether or not she will return home for the remainder of the year, Na said, “I think I am staying in dorms because the school strongly does not recommend that I leave because it is pretty bad in Korea and my visa ends with graduation. If I leave it decreases the chance that I will be able to come back into the country [for a job]… also many international students don’t have a car or a way to get around. We are kind of stuck on campus.” 

While the school initially allowed students to request to remain on campus in the first community-wide email, many students were later denied their request and asked to return home. A follow-up email to the first announcement on March 12 strongly encouraged students to stay off campus unless they had no other options. Na stated she believed that “way too many people signed up to live on campus,” meaning that the residential dorms would remain a hub for the spread of germs as people are unable to adequately practice social distancing or isolation. 

Na added that one benefit of the confusion is social media. “The Korean students never had a group chat but we finally got one now… a lot are strongly debating whether or not to go home. [The] underclassmen, their visas can allow them return home and go back… I’d rather be home and spend time with my family but that’s not really an option.” 

“It’s sad and it’s such an abrupt ending to this semester,” Na continued. “I was planning Spring Day and then we have May Fest and I was on the planning committee for commencement. It pisses me off. I was working really hard on those things and my effort went to nothing… I think it’s [actually] better not to be positive and just to accept it as it is and then not be let down once again.”  

When asked about concerns about taking classes online, Na said, “The LEADS office [Office of Learning Enrichment and Disabilities Services] has been talking a lot about how things are going to go. We have said, ‘how are students going to ask questions?’ And what about language barriers? … I’m a little nervous and I feel bad for students who are in different time zones and have to wake up super early. A lot of it is the environment, like getting up and getting ready and going to class… I am easily distracted at my home. I’m scared I’m going to slack off. I’m stressed about all these [things] and I know I need to do what I need to do to make things better on my end.” Na added, “This is a big part of history. This is really significant.” 

“If this had happened one month later, seniors would know more of what they were going to do after break,” Na said about future employment, stating that now students have more uncertainty. 

Some colleges, like Beloit, have closed for the semester completely, while others are suspending for two or three weeks while they assess the situation. Following the closure of many student dorms around the country, on Thursday March 12, the moving company U-Haul announced free 30-day storage for college students affected by the closure of their dorms and universities. The move is company-wide in the United States and Canada and applies to those with a current student ID. 

In the aftermath of the fear over the virus, the stock market plunged earlier in the week. Gas prices have also plummeted. Despite these indicators, as of Friday March 13 the US economy is not officially in recession. Also on March 13 President Trump declared a national emergency in the White House Rose Garden with various heads of national retailers from the private sector. Trump allocated $50 billion to combat the virus, with the goal to have 1.4 million new tests to be available by the end of the week, and 5 million in total by the end of March. 

Executive heads of Walmart and Walgreens pledged to remain available for retailers and to provide “drive-through experiences” for testing in their parking lots. Brian Cornell, CEO and Chairman of Target, also stated in the press conference, “we are facing a common competitor… we are determined to stay open for our consumers.” The news came after online images on social media showed the stockpiling of food and household essentials at grocery stores nationwide. Some of the most in-demand items include toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. 

While declaring the national emergency, President Trump addressed the state of students nationwide among the current university closures and announced he was waiving interest on all student loans until further notice. 

Arianna Gomez is a senior at Baylor University who suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a nervous system condition that affects the blood flow to organs and extremities when changing positions, which leads to the inability to coordinate blood pressure and heart rate. Gomez learned Baylor was extending its spring break by one week and then moving to two weeks of online classes while on vacation in the small beach town of Port Aransas, Texas. 

“My mom called me panicked,” Gomez told the Round Table. “[I] was supposed to go to a crawfish boil [birthday party]. And she was like, ‘you can’t go; all that open food touching,’ which makes sense, to be honest… I definitely feel like I’m more vulnerable. I’m super aware of how compromised my immune system is due to the fact that it takes me two to three weeks to recover from a cold or the common flu. So I’m super aware that it would take me a long time to recover… so it is super concerning.” When asked about whether she would prefer her semester to continue online, Gomez said, “I feel like it just needs to be continually monitored… it is super concerning that students come back from international travel [after spring break]… as a senior I would really prefer not to give up the last two months of my undergraduate experience so hopefully we can get it under control.” Gomez cited traditions and parties around graduation as important events she was looking forward to and said, “I feel like I’ve earned that after four years of school.” Gomez is taking precautions for her health by separating herself from friends who have recently traveled out of state or abroad. 

The virus originated in the Wuhan province of China, but on Thursday March 12 Chinese officials held a press conference to state that they believe the peak of their outbreak has passed, cases are on the decline, and over 60,000 patients have recovered. The news shifted the focus of the contagion to Europe, which has had major outbreaks in Italy, Spain, and Germany. The entire country of Italy, which has one of the oldest populations in the world, is on lockdown as doctors scramble to make room for more ICU beds for patients in need of ventilators. The outbreaks contributed to President Trump’s decision to restrict travel in and out of Europe to the United States. These decisions have had a substantial impact on study abroad programs and students who live outside the United States.

“Around 25% percent of my program has been asked to leave,” Fiona Cismesia’21 told the Round Table on March 13. Cismesia is a Beloit student currently studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador. “All the kids from Boston College, St. Norbert, Northern Arizona, and a few more small liberal arts schools [left].” Cismesia cited travel restrictions as a fear among students in Ecuador and said, “people are worried we won’t be able to get out or will have trouble getting into the US if we wait.” Cismesia stated Beloit has “a lack of communication with us” and said “they really aren’t helping us make a decision.” As of March 13 there were 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1 fatality in Ecuador. 

On Wednesday March 11 President Trump announced in an address from the Oval Office the suspension of air travel from continental countries in Europe, which would ban foreign tourists from traveling to the United States. On Saturday March 14 the ban was broadened to include the United Kingdom and Ireland. The move came after the national lockdown of Italy and national closures in France and Spain. By Sunday March 15 all international flights had been rerouted to 13 domestic airports, leading to confusion, chaos, and massive crowding in major domestic hubs such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare. The crowds were the exact opposite of the social distancing measures doctors are encouraging the public to practice. 

As the United States shuts down large gatherings in order to protect the most immunocompromised citizens in the country from the life-threatening illness, major festivals and events such as the South by Southwest (SXSW) and Tribeca film festivals, Coachella, and St. Patrick’s Day parades have been canceled. Public schools in Seattle, the US epicenter for the virus, closed earlier in the week and other school districts across the country are following suit, leaving many students at home with working parents. The domestic box office also suffered its worst weekend in nearly 20 years as movie theaters were ordered to limit capacity. 

Immunologist and director of the National Institutes of allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci stated on March 15 in a live interview on ABC News that “it will get worse before things get better,” but reiterated his statements from the White House Rose Garden press conference that if Americans continue to avoid social gatherings the peak of infections will be capped at a more manageable number, what he calls “flattening the curve.” Fauci also said he is confident the government is doing everything needed to contain the threat. 

Sources: USA Today, Austin American Statesman, CBS News, ABC News, Vox

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