“I’ve been able to talk to future classmates, and I’m really excited to meet new people and make friends,” Rice said in an interview while acknowledging that this year will be unlike any other. “We’re taking it seriously. All of us are willing to comply with the guidelines about wearing a mask, sitting a certain distance apart.”
But even as she prepared for the upcoming year, she kept an anxious eye on her email inbox for updates from Occidental and worried about receiving news that would scramble her college plans.
Rice’s senior year at Boise High School ended as it did for most American high school seniors. Sent home in March, they watched the days and weeks of what should have been the victory lap of their school years disappear under the cloud of an invisible virus. Parties and proms were canceled. On the day of Rice’s drive-by graduation, rain poured nonstop.
Goodbye, high school. No thanks for the final memory.
College promised a fresh start. But like many of the approximately 17 million undergraduate students across the country this summer who are uncertain when or if their schools will be able to reopen safely, Rice, 18, has been caught in a waiting game. Some schools announced they would begin the year with in-person classroom learning. Others, including Harvard, Rutgers and the University of Southern California, pushed almost all classes online for the fall. Many more schools proposed a mix of online and in-person options.
As the dates approach for students to arrive on campuses and begin classes, colleges and universities are still figuring out the best way to make that happen. They have issued plans and then changed them in response to a multitude of factors. Residents of college towns fret that the influx of thousands of young adults will further spread the novel coronavirus. Professors worry about teaching large classes in stuffy classrooms. Administrators ask themselves whether they will have all the cleaning, testing and tracing capability to keep everyone safe.
And even if everyone does everything right, it could still all go wrong. As the schools refine their plans, students wait and wonder. Should they take a gap year? Should they find different schools? Should they stay or should they go?
Trevion Collins, who is entering his sophomore year as a mass communications major at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, doesn’t want to think about the possibility of not returning to classrooms this fall.
“I really miss just getting up and going to class,” Collins said. “During quarantine, I lost all of my drive to do anything.”
For now, his classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 17. But Collins, 19, knows that could change. The Zachary, La., resident has watched this summer as the virus exploded throughout the South and threatened to undermine all reopening plans. His sophomore year is still in the virus’s crosshairs.
“We honestly don’t know what to expect,” he said. “I hope that it will run smoothly, but I can’t be too sure because corona slips through every nook and cranny that there is. All we can do is try. I mainly want to go back because I hate starting things and not finishing.”
When the University of Arizona sent students home and moved to online classes in the spring, Denice Tsinajinie, a member of the Navajo Nation, made the seven-hour drive to her parents’ rural home on the reservation. Attending virtual classes wasn’t as simple as waking up and logging on to her computer. WiFi at home was spotty, so she had to drive 20 minutes to a gas station on the reservation to find a decent connection. She often sat in her car for two or three hours attending class and doing coursework. She completed her exams in the parking lot.
As she begins her senior year, Tsinajinie, 20, is back in Tucson living in an apartment. She has Internet service, and she’ll need it: The criminal justice major says her classes will all be online.
“It’s making me sad at the moment because I won’t really be able to have the full experience of my senior year,” Tsinajinie said. “There’s a lot of mixed emotions. And there’s also fear because of the virus. It could be online-only through the whole year.”
At Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Jonathan Caputo also is preparing to enter his senior year and, like Tsinajinie, he’s disappointed about what that will look like. School is reopening in early September, but students can decide whether to return to campus.
“I have to try and look at the positives of the upcoming year because I know there will be a lot that will get me down,” said Caputo, 21, of Silver Lake, N.H. “It is upsetting knowing that it’s not going to be normal.”
A member of the cross-country running team, Caputo has already learned that fall sports have been canceled. But he takes solace in knowing that he can still practice with his teammates and will be able to spend time with friends.
“It’s kind of a lot, trying to look ahead, but I can’t worry about winter and spring terms,” he said. “I just need to look at the fall and try and get through the fall.”
Grace Cumming is another athlete whose college career has been upended by the pandemic. She returned to the University of Minnesota’s campus this summer to work out with her teammates on the university’s basketball team. The 19-year-old rising sophomore from Des Moines said it has been strange being on campus and thinking about what the next year will bring.
Cumming and her teammates were tested for the coronavirus and are under the microscope of new safety procedures the university has put in place.
“We have our temperatures taken every day, and we have to do contact tracing,” Cumming said. “Life looks very, very different on campus now than it did when we left.”
Cumming, a psychology major, understands that students want to be back at school and that there’s a desire to connect with friends and socialize in the ways that college makes possible. But she is not optimistic about a return to anything that resembles normal.
“I definitely don’t think it’s safe to go back to school the same way. It’s not realistic,” she said. “College students are not as much at risk as the rest of the population, but it’s not in the interest of public health to have in-person classes the way they used to be.”
Raven McAuliffe planned to move to Washington next month from Bartlett, N.H., to join the freshman class at George Washington University. There wouldn’t be an in-person orientation. Arrivals were to be staggered and masks required.
It was a big shift from her small town, where the coronavirus has been much less destructive. Despite the restrictions and pared-back interactions, McAuliffe, 18, was eager to get started. A political science major, she especially looked forward to being in Washington in a momentous election year.
“My whole life I’ve wanted to go into politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, and there’s no better place to go than Washington, D.C., to be part of that culture,” she said in an interview last week. “Even though freshman year is not going to be what I expected, it’s still going to be this great experience to catapult me into the next part of my life.”
On Monday, McAuliffe learned that the catapult had boomeranged, at least for now. George Washington announced that all classes would be online-only and that on-campus housing would be provided for only a small number of students.
“I was honestly really surprised, because George Washington had such a thorough plan for reopening this fall, but I still think it was the right decision,” McAuliffe said in a text message Monday. “Although it is disappointing to me and all my peers, the pandemic has taken far too many lives and I would not want to contribute to any further spread of the coronavirus. I’m proud that George Washington was able to make the responsible choice, but I’m sad that it will cost me my first semester of college.”
Kayah Woodford, who is entering her sophomore year at Ohio State University, says the pandemic is taking away experiences she’ll never get back.
“There’s no energy or atmosphere like being on a college campus. Everybody loves being a Buckeye,” she said. “But covid has been so devastating. I feel like these are the best years of my life and I’m missing out on them. I crave the normalcy that I took for granted just a few months ago.”
But if the pandemic closed school, it opened an unexpected opportunity for Woodford. After George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, Woodford, 18, formed an anti-racism project in her hometown of Bexley, Ohio. The experience of organizing and running the project made her think about learning in a classroom vs. the real-world experience she was gaining this summer.
“I considered taking a year off. My organizing effort is like a full-time job,” she said. “I’m doing a lot for the project, and I can only imagine where it would go if I could devote all of my efforts to it. I ask myself, ‘What’s the benefit of taking time off and doing the actual work instead of studying and learning about the work?’ ”
For some college students, all of the uncertainty about what the school year will bring has led them to reevaluate their options. Chloe Fatsis, who graduated from the District’s Woodrow Wilson High School this year and was accepted at Brown, had been considering taking a gap year before the pandemic. She decided in May to apply to take the year off and is waiting to hear the school’s decision. Brown has announced that all freshmen will wait until January to begin their school year.
“College is expensive, and it’s good to make sure you’re getting the most out of it,” said Fatsis, 18, who is considering majoring in history. “My biggest concern was not wanting to do online classes. I benefit from being in a classroom environment, talking to students and professors. That’s really hard to replicate online. I think I could get more out of it by taking a year off and learning more about myself.”
Back in Boise on July 15, a few days after discussing her hopeful plans for the fall semester, Callie Rice learned that her trip to Los Angeles would have to be postponed. Citing a spike in coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County, Occidental officials decided to offer classes only online for the fall semester.
As she read the announcement, Rice said, she felt it was “just the final nail in the coffin.”
“Ending high school online was quite isolating, and I just felt unmotivated,” she said. “And having to transition to college still online, I was worried about how I’m going to adjust. It put back my hopes for what my college experience will be like until spring semester, when, hopefully, we can go back to campus.”
So Rice will begin her college career from home. She is pursuing a degree in molecular biology and said she may focus on virology.
“It may be a really good field to go into,” she said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of funding for it.”