On the overcast day of Nov. 22, 2020, like most occupants of the University of Michigan’s residence halls, I stuffed my belongings into cardboard boxes and dragged them to my mother’s car outside Bursley Residence Hall's entrance. Once finished, I began the journey back home.
Typically, college freshmen would be distraught at the prospect of leaving campus, their friends and newfound freedom. However, all I felt was relief. I especially took comfort in the fact that I wouldn’t be receiving the dreaded daily emails informing me that my building had multiple COVID-19 cases.
The emails came at about 10 a.m. Often, they arrived during classes, with the “Notification of Positive COVID-19 Case in Bursley” subject line making me involuntarily grimace on Zoom calls. While reading the emails, I’d pray under my breath for no more cases to be found within my hall.
Every time I left my room to get meals, I felt anxious knowing the virus was found at multiple locations in the building. Even going to the bathroom felt terrifying. If I saw someone brushing their teeth at the same time as me, anxiety spiked. Wanting to keep safe, I strictly adhered to COVID-19 restrictions, making it difficult to get to know people in my hall, which made the entire experience more taxing — it felt like our health was in strangers’ hands.
According to the University’s Campus Blueprint, there have been 687 reported cases in the residence halls since March 8, 2020. Bursley Hall had 38 reported cases, while South Quad Residence Hall and Mary Markley Residence Hall had 158 and 160 reported cases, respectively.
Over the summer, when I was deciding whether to live on-campus in the fall, it seemed obvious to stay in the residence halls. Everyone in my family was fighting for space at home and online classes felt incredibly taxing from my childhood bedroom. Although I was nervous about COVID-19, I convinced myself that University Housing’s plans would be safe — I was desperate to move after staying in isolation with my family for so long. If I followed housing rules and used enough hand sanitizer, I would be fine. Right?
Wrong. The University’s seeming lack of a public health plan with little to no regular COVID-19 testing caused a public health disaster in the residence halls, jeopardizing students’ and community members’ physical health. In fact, another side effect of the housing situation was extremely strained mental health, both for myself and many other college students.
The regular freshman feelings of loneliness and confusion were magnified — in a study conducted by Texas A&M University, 71% of students indicated increased stress and anxiety due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Such stress and anxiety can only be exacerbated by being confined to a tiny, enclosed room while trying to finish difficult online classes. LSA freshman Ayden Makar notes that “(residence hall life) was often lonely … and it got much worse once it got cold and dark outside.”
While leaving my room felt horrifying, staying inside was the opposite — hollow. I was completely alone — like many others, I was assigned to a double, but my intended roommate chose to remain at home. I spent my days entirely by myself, hiding away from the chaos outside and repeating my days in a hazy blur. I spent all of my time trying to pass difficult yet intellectually unstimulating online classes. People only existed on a screen. I was lonely and unhappy.
Towards the end of the fall semester, the University announced that they wouldn’t reopen residence halls for the winter semester except for students with necessary circumstances. Residence halls would only be single residences. Additionally, the University finally decided to start mandatory COVID-19 testing for all residents once a week.
However, their efforts were too little, too late. The University is now known for its poor public health-based decisions made by both the administration and its students that resulted in a massive outbreak. Many first-year students moved back home with distrust in the institution.
First-generation and low-income students will undoubtedly feel the results of this emotionally isolating and physically dangerous experience the most. According to a report by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a higher education consulting firm, COVID-19 has changed the ability of at least 22% of families to pay for college. Due to the pandemic’s economic effects, many people are struggling to provide for themselves, let alone pay hefty increased tuition and room and board bills. More families are in a financially vulnerable position, and when the college experience received is of such low quality, many feel discouraged from going back to college.
Lastly, the “freshman experience” is often discussed as a shared experience where people experience their first taste of freedom, attend parties and start discovering their identities. The current freshman class won’t get to enjoy this experience, and our entire college experience will be significantly changed because of COVID-19 — to us, the University of Michigan has started to symbolize something different. The Class of 2024 knows of the University not for its stellar academics, student life or sports, but rather its public health disasters, poor treatment of Graduate Student Instructors and difficult online classes.
The University is in uncharted territory, and their recent policies — or lack thereof — have had terrible effects. It’s impossible to rely on the University to assure one’s safety and well-being. Now, it is the University’s job to earn back student and community trust by ensuring that our health and mental wellbeing is being addressed and supported to their best ability.
Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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