Higher Education

On campus with the coronavirus: An oral history of the strangest semester ever

A masked person walks along University Avenue at the University of Virginia, which welcomed students back for a semester transformed by the novel coronavirus.

It was the second Wednesday of the first month back on campus, just weeks into the weirdest semester on record, when one dorm’s residents received an email that might have marked the beginning of the end.

The University of Virginia was about to confront the biggest threat yet to its audacious plan to bring thousands of young adults back to Charlottesville and resume in-person schooling mid-pandemic. There appeared to be an outbreak of the coronavirus in Balz-Dobie residence hall, a first-year dorm with a handful of positive cases and concerning signs pointing to even more.

Like scores of universities across the country, U-Va. found itself facing rising case counts and an anxious student body at the outset of an unprecedented, chaotic school year. Students closely tracked the upheaval elsewhere. When nearby schools were forced to change course, they wondered if they’d be next.

The virus swirled, and so did the rumors. Closure was imminent, some said; the school just wanted to cash in on nonrefundable tuition payments, others claimed. Many feared it would only get worse.

Then, the email came. Around 5 p.m. on Sept. 16, a “Public Health Alert” arrived in Balz-Dobie inboxes, ordering students back to their dorm within the hour. Every resident would get a coronavirus test, and the building would be locked down until the results came back. The future of U-Va.’s restart experiment hung in the balance.

It was a moment that exemplified a fall of extreme uncertainty, which unspooled against a backdrop of fierce national debate over in-person instruction. On U-Va.’s campus, known as the “Grounds,” students struggled with questions both monumental and mundane: Where can I study? How do I make friends? What if my roommate gets me sick? What’s the big deal? Why are we here?

This is the story of those first few weeks — condensed and edited for clarity — as told by new college students, a second-year, resident advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their jobs, three school officials and the university’s coronavirus dashboard, which tracks quarantines and virus cases since Aug. 17.

This oral history follows more than a dozen students in different dorms who shared their experiences in real time, from the days before move-in, through the ominous Balz-Dobie email and into the unpredictable aftermath.

Mina DiPaula, a first-year student, said she kept second-guessing her decision to move on campus. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

‘The start of a horror movie’

On Aug. 28, three days after fall semester classes began online, the university announces it will reopen campus to its more than 17,000 undergraduates. In-person classes will start Sept. 8. Now students have to decide whether they’ll go.

U-Va. leaders in their “Return to Grounds” statement: There are no easy answers here, and there are no risk-free paths.

The Cavalier Daily, U-Va.’s student newspaper: This feels like the start of a horror movie.

Gabrielle Cope, a first-year: I was scared, because in my hometown, nobody took it seriously. Kids have been partying the whole time. And I sat in my room alone, because I didn’t want to risk my parents’ lives.

Cassie Lipton, a first-year: I know there’s definitely risk involved. But at the same time, I’ve just been stuck in my house so long that I’m ready for a change of pace regardless. And my entire, like, 13 years of public education has been building up to going to college.

Abena Sekum Appiah-Ofori, a second-year: My mind works better when I’m at school, so I’m excited. I think it’ll be better for my grades. But I’m also concerned for the Charlottesville community.

President Jim Ryan: Thousands of students, the bulk of our students, live off Grounds, and it was clear that they were going to be back living in private houses and apartments whether classes were all online or some were in person. Part of the goal has always been to not just ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff, but to ensure the safety of the Charlottesville community.

Lipton: I keep telling people that my plan is to just go and safely make the most of whatever two weeks I get until we’re inevitably sent home.

Ryan: The financial piece of it is obviously something that you have to pay attention to, but the finances didn’t drive the decision.

Mina DiPaula, a first-year: I heard somewhere the goal was to essentially be able to pack up and move out of your dorm room with one day’s notice and be able to go back home, which is obviously very stressful when it’s the first time you’re moving out of your house and you’re told: “Don’t bring anything you can’t pack up in one day.”

Ryan: Our view was that we would have an easier time of influencing student behavior if you didn’t have a closed sign on the university and instead students feel like they were a part of the university community.

Appiah-Ofori: My mom doesn’t want me to go. She’s like: “Why are you going? We’re not kicking you out or anything. You can just stay home. You’re going to catch covid.”

Allen Groves, dean of students: I sent an email to students saying, you know, this is a personal decision for you and your family to make.

DiPaula: I keep second-guessing if I made the right decision in going.

Tyler Busch, a first-year: I think it’s best summarized by, if you’ve ever seen “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” Padme, when the whole empire was shifting, says: “So this is how liberty dies? With thunderous applause.” And that was sort of how I was feeling, because a lot of my classmates were so happy and so excited.

When the first undergraduates arrive on Sept. 3, U-Va. reports there has been a total of 135 student coronavirus cases. Quarantine housing for the exposed is 6 percent full. Isolation housing for the infected and symptomatic is empty. Resident advisers’ jobs have gotten a lot harder.

Fourth-year RA: I got some PPE to distribute to my residents. Each person has a bag. It’s two masks, two small hand sanitizer bottles. It’s kind of pathetic.

Brian Coy, university spokesman: We provided personal protective equipment to all members of our community that was recommended by public health experts.

Balz-Dobie RA: RAs feel like we have not been given adequate personal protective equipment. I can’t speak to other dorms, but we had to really beg for it.

Coy: RAs requested additional PPE, including face shields, which were then provided. We also provided two additional cloth face masks to RAs.

Second-year students Macy Stahl and Rujula Upasani shop along University Avenue. Both said they were glad to be back on campus. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

‘You were definitely at a bar’

A quarter of the nearly 4,000 first-years who initially signed up for on-campus housing don’t show up, Groves says. Upperclassmen dorms are half-full. Move-in weekend, usually a celebration, becomes a four-day logistics exercise. Students are assigned two-hour windows to lug dorm furnishings into their buildings.

Before they arrive, students must sign an agreement pledging to “maintain a healthy and safe environment.” New roommates, meeting each other for the first time, will have to depend on one another to stay safe.

Busch: A couple weeks back, I made this doc for us and shared it with my roommate, outlining things that we can do to limit contact.

Cope: We came together and defined our expectations for how we wanted to act. So for our suite personally, no one’s allowed in the suite without a mask on who doesn’t live there, and if someone who doesn’t live there is in the suite, we all have to have masks on.

Busch: I was in the bathroom, and I wiped down a sink, and then someone else was using a sink next to me and then he actually left and got his sanitizer stuff and wiped his sink, too. So, you know, good behavior is rubbing off on people.

Abena Sekum Appiah-Ofori, a second-year student, said she is glad to be back on campus but worries about contributing to infections in the Charlottesville area. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

DiPaula: I walked up to the Corner at U-Va., where there’s a bunch of restaurants and stuff. That was insanely busy. I was like: “Nope, I’m leaving here now.”

Appiah-Ofori: The only time I felt like, “I’m about to get covid,” was when I was at the Corner and there were a bunch of people not social distancing and not wearing masks.

Groves, dean of students: We’ve talked with the owners of the bars on the Corner and said, “Look, we need your help here, that you make sure you are, in fact, checking ID, but also that you’re enforcing the same kind of restrictions that we’re trying to enforce.” Those spaces can become superspreaders.

Hala Baidas, a first-year: My dorm is right by the stairs, and I can hear people coming in at like 2 in the morning on a weekend. And it’s like, you were definitely at a bar. And I really hope you didn’t bring anything back, because I definitely share a bathroom with you.

RA in a first-year dorm: I don’t blame students for that all the way. Being told it is safe for them to come to the university, to live in the residence halls, go to classes, it carries a little bit of an implication that it’s safe for them to do a lot of things they might consider essential to the college experience.

Appiah-Ofori: I’ve seen a lot of people on U-Va. Twitter being like: “Oh, if I see you breaking social distancing rules, I’ll report you.” I don’t know. I just don’t like that idea of us self-policing each other. Black and Brown students are going to receive the worst of it if we’re all self-reporting each other.

Busch: Online, some people were saying, “Oh yeah, I saw this person without a mask or doing something crazy,” and for some people, it might be true, some not. It’s just creating tension among the students. A lot of people are losing focus on the big picture and the school’s role in this as well.

Fourth-year RA: The policies are you can’t bring any guests into your room. There’s no way we can police that. I don’t think I want to police that.

‘Please return to your room now’

Heading into undergrads’ first full weekend on campus, total student infections have jumped by more than 100 in a week. Quarantine housing is 8 percent occupied. Isolation housing is 1 percent full.

On Monday, Sept. 14, the Balz-Dobie dorm group chat lights up. Residents are self-reporting symptoms and volunteering to get tested. For one student, it feels like the virus is inching its way closer. An open letter appears on a window in the dorm with a warning: It takes one empty-headed student to force us into isolation by the dozens."

Balz-Dobie RA: I personally was starting to get on edge probably around Tuesday night. Just knowing that there have been large gatherings in our dorm particularly. I had already started hearing residents being concerned about people exhibiting symptoms. And I was like, this makes sense given what I’ve seen, and I’m starting to get scared.

On Wednesday, U-Va. says five Balz-Dobie residents have recently tested positive and that the dorm’s wastewater shows signs of the virus. Cue the university’s official Public Health Alert.

“If you are away from Balz-Dobie, please return to your room now. If you are already in your room, please stay there,” reads the email, sent at 4:58 p.m. All 188 residents would have to be tested. Once again, the group chat buzzes.

President Ryan: There was some concern that there might be a really large number of cases. The recommendation was to test everyone, but to do it quickly.

Soven Bhagat, a first-year: People who face the front of the building started sending pictures and videos of the U-Va. health staff coming in in their scrubs and all of their testing kits.

Busch: I found myself just kind of sitting here and trying to get stuff done. But I really, really couldn’t focus on anything for the most part.

Bhagat: Their process for giving us food was to make us go pick it up from a table, which, I don’t know, I’m not a public health expert, but it still felt weird that they were letting us leave the building.

Balz-Dobie RA: We had not been prepped on what would happen if our whole dorm went into quarantine.

Ryan: This is the first time through a pandemic for all of us on a college campus. We did do an awful lot of planning, but we also went into it realizing and saying that we were gonna have to be ready and willing to adapt based on what we were seeing.

First-year students Nishita Ghanate and Kelsey Cashman work on the Lawn. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

One day after Balz-Dobie’s lockdown began, U-Va.’s coronavirus tracker reports a total of 382 student cases. In the meantime, the dorm’s residents are stuck inside, wondering how bad things might get.

Bhagat: At some point in the afternoon, U-Va. emailed us saying we’ll have your test results for you this evening. In that time period, one of the boys in the building, he’s a musician, so he put on an Instagram live concert for us.

Luke Powers, a first-year who performed: We were waiting for our test results and it was hard to focus on doing work and I thought: “What can I do about that?”

He plays guitar and sings for an hour, live-streaming for scores of other students stuck in their rooms.

Bhagat: Everyone opened their windows and put speakers in the windows so everyone was listening to it together. That was just the first time where everyone really settled. We all had a sense of calm and camaraderie together.

Powers: A few hours later, people were moving out, going to isolation dorms, people getting contact traced.

Balz-Dobie RA: I’ve not talked to a single resident who was able to get work done during the time that we were in quarantine. All of them said that they were too stressed.

Residents are told that students who are positive will go into isolation. Close contacts will go into quarantine. People who need to move will get a phone call before midnight.

Balz-Dobie RA: Our residents are trying to ask us questions like, “When are we gonna get out of here?” We say we have no idea. We don’t even know who’s positive.

Bhagat: We were also very consciously following the Cav Daily, because they were giving us a lot more information than U-Va. itself.

Ten more cases surface in Balz-Dobie. By the end of the week, U-Va. has reported 440 student cases in a month. Three more dorms are tested — and the results are still coming in.

Almost a fifth of quarantine housing is now full. Busch is in one of those rooms, a hotel suite off campus.

Busch: I’m really upset, knowing that I was fine and that I did everything right, but that, incidentally, one of my contacts has me in here now. I’d say this is bad, but not the absolute worst, because I don’t have it. And also — trying to find a positive in this — I’m in quarantine before things potentially get worse from here.

Students still stuck in Balz-Dobie get an email Friday afternoon: They’re free to go.

Bhagat: I was exhausted. So the first thing I did was I left. I put on my mask and I went for a walk. I was like, I need to leave. I need to just be in a place that is not my dorm room.

The residence hall is eerily quiet over the weekend.

Bhagat: Normally in all the lounges on the floors on Friday and Saturday evenings, people are playing games like poker or Codenames. Everyone’s hanging out. Yesterday, it was just about empty. Everyone is a little bit on edge, and there’s a lot of residual trauma from the past few days.

People gather at the University of Virginia's Rotunda. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

A little over two weeks since undergraduates moved back, U-Va. decreases acceptable gathering sizes from 15 to five people for at least two weeks and urges people to follow the rules on travel: Don’t leave Charlottesville. No out-of-town guests.

Quarantine housing jumps to 26 percent occupancy. Isolation housing is 7 percent full. In a video message to students, President Ryan says public health experts are worried about reports of big gatherings on and off Grounds.

Students have been suspended, but U-Va. declined to share details on the individuals or their violations, saying the school disciplinary process is confidential.

Hannah, a first-year: I’ve heard of kids trying to get tested off campus so we don’t have to report it to the school. It just seems that a lot of kids are trying not to get — I don’t want to say not get caught. Not to be disrupted.

Hannah and her roommate, Erin, spoke to us on the condition we only use their first names, because they are worried about backlash against their eventual decision to quarantine off campus.

Ryan, in the video message: We will also put in place additional restrictions if necessary. I say this not to alarm you, but to make clear that we will continue to do everything we need to in order to keep people safe and to give students a chance to remain on Grounds this semester.

Busch: I want to say that I think we close. But the school has their reputation on the line and just won’t do that any time soon, no matter what.

Ryan, in the video message: We have known that this path would be difficult.

People sit socially distanced on the Lawn at the University of Virginia, which has limited gathering sizes. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

‘I’d still rather stay here’

More changes, more testing.

Mask use wanes at U-Va.’s Clemons Library, which is forced to briefly close on Sept. 23 for the second time in four days. Balz-Dobie residents will be tested again, as will the 115 students in Hancock residence hall after 16 cases were found there. More dorms follow.

DiPaula: It’s kind of gotten to the point where it’s still definitely very frustrating but no longer surprising. Because it feels like practically every other day there’s something new they’re wanting us to do or take care of.

RA in a first-year dorm: That does take a mental toll on my first-year residents. They see a situation that overall seems to be slowly worsening, but they can’t identify exactly where that’s from.

Powers: A lot of schools have said, “Okay, we tried, we’re sending you home.” And I think U-Va. is really trying to keep us here. Even if that means being as strict as possible, I’d still rather stay here than spend my first year of college online at home.

Balz-Dobie RA: I feel completely unable to do anything. Did I take the exam? Yes. Do I think I did well on the exam? No.

Appiah-Ofori: There’s two organizations on Grounds trying to get the university to allow pass/fail grading again this semester, because circumstances have only gotten worse, not better.

Balz-Dobie RA: Everyone that has additional responsibility because of covid would prefer universal credit/no credit. I feel like I’m constantly drowning.

Baidas: The covid tracker, we have a little schedule. Every day when it comes out at 4 o’clock around that time, we look at it, and we discuss what’s going on. Everyone checks it religiously just to see the numbers and pray they’re not shooting up.

Powers: I do think U-Va. is definitely handling it the best they can. I think the students are figuring it out as we go, and they’re also figuring it out as we go. And I think it’s going to require a bit of grace on both sides.

New infections start to decline under the stricter rules. Nobody knows if the trend will hold.

In an interview, President Ryan says kicking students off campus would pose its own danger: potentially contagious young people fanning out around the state and country.

But it will happen eventually. Students leave next month for Thanksgiving break and will finish the semester remotely.

Ryan: We’re working out plans to provide testing before students return for Thanksgiving. It’s not clear if we can require students, only because it may be difficult to enforce that requirement.

People walk across the Lawn at the University of Virginia. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

‘We’re just going to do it ourselves’

Some students take matters into their own hands when they believe they’ve been exposed. When a suitemate goes into quarantine after experiencing symptoms, DiPaula says she self-isolates even though the school hasn’t asked her to yet. Hannah says that when she loses her ability to taste — a symptom of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — she and her roommate decide to leave their room only for food and bathroom breaks.

Hannah goes into a university isolation room after reporting her symptoms to the school, she says, but two days later, she’s cleared to leave with a negative test result.

Hannah: We were very skeptical, because I couldn’t taste anything, couldn’t smell, I had a headache.

Erin, Hannah’s roommate: She was really positive she was gonna get a positive test, so I packed all my things up and I was ready to leave. And then when it came back negative, we just made the decision that we’re just going to do it ourselves.

Hannah: We hear everyone outside having fun without us. The people in our hall chatting and forming a deeper friendship while we had to sit in our room and just talk to each other.

Soon, their whole dorm is tested. Hannah says she’s still negative, but Erin says she gets a call in the middle of class: She’s positive. She thinks: “I need to do laundry.”

Erin: I was like, “Oh my God, I have to leave.” So the panic of like, I had nothing ready to go.

With U-Va.’s blessing, the roommates say, they head to Erin’s house two hours away in Leesburg to quarantine in her family’s basement. Neither wants to relive Hannah’s experience isolating on campus.

Hannah: It almost looked like an insane asylum. The walls are so bare. And they also told me not to bring any, like, bedding or anything, but they gave me only the thinnest blanket in the world to sleep with. My RA had to drop off my comforter for me later.

Erin: I’d rather be home.

People walk across University Avenue at the University of Virginia. One part of college life that has been made more difficult by the pandemic is meeting new friends. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

‘A very different kind of semester’

Through the health alerts and quarantines, the more quotidian concerns of college life linger.

Lipton: That’s been pretty difficult, trying to make friends, especially being out of state and not knowing anybody and not having a roommate.

Cope: You can’t walk around campus and walk up to someone and say hi, because you don’t want to invade their personal space.

RA in a first-year dorm: I have a great support network and I would say most RAs have a great support network of other staffers in the building. I feel like when there’s a sustained, unrelenting pressure, stress, a physical threat like this, I think those support networks become less effective, because every single person in those networks who would normally be recharged, ready to help, they’re going through the exact same thing.

President Ryan: It’s challenging. From the very beginning, we tried to make it clear to students that this would be a very different kind of semester and gave students the option of learning from home.

In his hotel room Sept. 30, Busch tallies his days in quarantine. Fourteen. Almost out. But while he’s been stuck inside, with cold meals and a window that doesn’t open, much has changed on Grounds.

Busch: I don’t even know what I’m going back to.

Even his on-campus housing will be different when he returns. He’s moving into a single, a change he requested after being quarantined to limit his exposure.

Busch: Not to say it’s anyone’s fault, but it probably could have been avoided if I was living by myself. I would feel much safer and more at ease just being by myself in a room.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a semester like no other at the University of Virginia. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

‘Is it ever going to go back to completely normal? I don’t know.’

The university extends the extra restrictions another two weeks. It agrees to let undergraduates take their courses credit/no credit, bowing to pressure from students. On Oct. 8, U-Va. counts 857 total student cases, with a recent average of about 15 new infections per day.

Charlottesville has logged more coronavirus cases since September than in the six previous months combined. Cases are trending down in Virginia, but most states have seen cases flare since late summer, and experts are worried about cold weather driving people inside.

The rest of the semester is a question mark at U-Va., too. There are 52 days until final exams, and 44 days until the last of classes before Thanksgiving break. Plans could change at any moment.

After a month on campus, students ask themselves: Did I make the right choice?

Bhagat: I think the in-person experience has been worth it for me. I’ve been able to make friends and still spend time with them with some level of safety. We’ve been hiking and paddle boarding on weekends, and while it’s definitely not the experience I would have planned to have had, it’s still been nice so far.

Cope: Is it ever going to go back to completely normal? I don’t know. So I can’t push off life, hoping that one day it does.

DiPaula: I think it was a worthwhile choice for me, but I don’t think the university should have decided to open. By deciding to open, the university forced all of us to make this really, really hard choice.

Balz-Dobie RA: I believe that Housing and Residence Life is actually doing a pretty good job given the circumstances, and my complaints are with the university administration, the higher-ups. And I’m speaking to [a reporter] because I feel like the only way to get through to the higher-ups is to make it a PR necessity to do so.

Appiah-Ofori: I’m honestly filled with intense guilt the longer I stay in Charlottesville. It’s still very conflicting. On one hand, I know it’s best for me mentally and academically not to be at home while I’m taking classes. But on another hand, I’m contributing to the spike of covid rates in Charlottesville by staying here and risking getting infected and passing it on to others.

At the end of the day, I’m just one person, and U-Va. is an institution that can make the change necessary to stop the spike by sending us back home. I’ve definitely thought about packing up my stuff and going home, but I’m choosing to wait until the university makes the call.

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