'Everyone's losing': College campus closures a stark reality for students

"I'd take Corona over listening to my mom nag at me every day for a month," one student messaged.
Image: Columbia University
A man walks past Low Library on the Columbia University campus in New York on March 9, 2020.Mark Lennihan / AP

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Natasha Roy and Ben Kesslen

An eerie quiet crept over Amherst College's usually bustling Massachusetts campus Monday when students learned that in-person classes have been canceled for the rest of the semester and they have to vacate school grounds by Monday.

"We got the email, and we all just sort of sat there in silence for a little while," said Emma Swislow, a senior.

Swislow, 22, described the decision as a "big shock." She was hoping to spend the next few months wrapping up her time at the small liberal arts school and begin saying her goodbyes.

"Now, we've had to do that in a matter of days," she said.

Amherst is one of many colleges that have decided to close their campuses and move to remote classes as the coronavirus — and the fear surrounding it — spreads.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

This week, University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan and dozens of others schools moved classes online. Like Amherst, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa and Harvard University took it a step further, ordering students to leave campus for the remainder of the semester.

The universities say the decision to close is meant to stem the spread of the virus on campuses where students live in close quarters and aren't too likely to heed public health warnings. But telling students to head home and take classes online for the rest of the semester isn't as simple as it sounds, and for many students, it feels more devastating than contracting the virus itself.

Tufts University in Massachusetts emailed students on the Tuesday evening that their spring break would be extended through March 25 and that classes would move online afterward. Students were told to move out of their residence halls and depart campus by Monday.

When the news hit, students began "freaking out," said Michael Wilkinson, 21, a junior.

"There's been many people crying, hugging each other," Wilkinson said. "They're not sure if they're going to see their friends for quite some time."

Wilkinson, who has never taken an online class before, doesn't know whether he'll be able to learn the material as well via video conference and thinks the overall quality of instruction will go down.

"I'm concerned that this semester isn't going to be as academically rich as it could have been," he said.

Swislow, a double major at Amherst in English and geology, shares those fears. She has labs every week, where they use microscopes and inspect rocks. Her professor is trying to come up with alternative ways of instruction, but she isn't sure whether they would work.

Carrieanne Mamba, a sophomore at the UC-Santa Barbara, is anxious over what's to come.

The university told students this week that classes would be moved online through at least the end of April and recommended that students prepare to be away from campus until then.

Because Mamba, 20, is from Massachusetts, her thoughts immediately turned to the idea of moving home and essentially losing independence until May. She's stuck choosing between Massachusetts and California, which are both in states of emergency.

"I really do not want to stay with my parents doing nothing for a month," Mamba said in an email. "I'd take Corona over listening to my mom nag at me every day for a month."

Beyond her being trapped in her childhood bedroom, Mamba's decision has financial ramifications.

She doesn't want to be paying thousands of dollars to take classes online when she already has to pay rent in California. Now, she's considering taking cheaper online courses at a community college.

Many students around the country think the decision to close campuses doesn't consider the needs of low-income students. Not everyone on a college campus, no matter how elite, has a safe home to return to, and some can't afford the trip back home.

Some schools, like Harvard, are saying their financial aid offices can offer assistance, but how comprehensive that help will be is unclear. At other schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, students have launched mutual-aid Google Docs, on which they are raising funds and crowdsourcing spare rooms and storage for students who need help moving out at the last minute.

Amherst extended its move-out deadline to next Wednesday after students organized, and it is allowing students to petition to stay on campus. But the policy — which could provide relief for some students — has also created what Julian Brubaker, a senior, called an "impossible situation."

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

He said that while he has reasons to stay, other people could have better reasons, and he's wrestling with potentially taking someone's spot. At the same time, he doesn't want to leave an institution and a community that have been so foundational to him for nearly four years.

"The reality is very few students will be able to stay under this kind of policy," said Brubaker, 22.

All the while, he and his classmates are sad about the sudden end of their final semester. Students are realizing they have to pack in goodbyes to friends and professors in the next week.

Swislow is trying to spend as much time with her friends as possible; they take walks around campus and check things off their bucket list. The idea of Amherst's canceling commencement is difficult to swallow but increasingly likely as large gatherings throughout the country and the world are being banned.

Pete Zheng, a graduate student at Columbia University, where classes will be online until March 27, is grateful that his school is being proactive. Zheng, 24, commutes to campus and has been terrified to take the subway every day.

He knows the move to online instruction feels extreme and said he hopes it's not long term, but he feels that dark times call for drastic policies. Plus, he doesn't think Columbia is happy about the move, either.

"Everyone's losing right now," Zheng said.