Vassar community reflects on one year of pandemic

On March 7, 2020, Vassar College shut its doors for spring break, expecting students to return two weeks later. But, on March 23, Vassar students and professors logged onto Zoom to begin the semester online. One person who found themselves navigating the infamous mute button was Chelsea Zak ’23. “At first, I was extremely frustrated,” she remembered. “I felt like my college experience was stolen from me, and, from March to April, life felt so unfair.”  

Professor Robert DeMaria of the English department recalled that, although remote learning was a difficult transition, returning to classes gave everyone a sense of normalcy. “Spring 2020 was disorienting, but the hours logged in person before we went remote stood us in good stead,” he said. “There was a little bit of excitement about the new format and a desire to stay in touch when we had been so suddenly separated. That wore off a bit as the semester went on.”

There were questions about whether students would return to campus later in the semester, differing opinions on grading policies and concerns about graduation. Students listened to lectures while worrying about the safety of their families, communities and the world at large.

After five months of lockdown, Vassar reopened its doors in August 2020 for the fall semester. Students and faculty, unsure of what to expect, cautiously returned to campus, only to find it dramatically different from the Vassar they remembered. The protocols implemented to keep COVID numbers under control—social distancing, masks, grab-and-go dining, the inability to leave campus and biweekly testing—left the campus almost unrecognizable.

A few weeks into the semester, isolation began to take a toll. In a survey conducted by the Vassar Student Association (VSA) in October 2020, 81 percent of respondents agreed that they were experiencing worse mental health than in a typical semester. Zak recalled, “I was very thankful for the chance to come back to campus, but I was incredibly isolated…Even though I had friends on campus, I was not allowed to pod with any of them since they lived in different dorms.”

For many students, the fall semester was bitter-sweet. Although Vassar was successful in keeping the virus contained, with only 46 COVID-19 student cases and 39 employee cases, the mental health issue cast a dark shadow over the entire semester.

More than 2000 students returned to campus in early February. Reflecting on how the semester thus far has differed from last fall, President Elizabeth Bradley commented, “The fall was harder in many respects because it was all new, and we had to develop new systems for everything…In the spring semester, those systems were more routinized.” She acknowledged, however, that the colder weather this semester posed new difficulties. “Although we were able to go to pods and indoor dining earlier, socializing was more difficult because it was too cold to have meetings, meals and gatherings outdoors. Tents will arrive at the end of March, and I expect the weather to be more friendly then, so we can socialize more easily outdoors.” 

Spring semester’s indoor dining, inter-house podding and larger pod sizes have been helping students wrestle through the winter months. “I think podding has certainly improved my mental health and everyone else’s,” Zak said. “It’s given people an outlet to have normalcy in a world that is so far from normal.”

A junior who asked to remain anonymous, however, thinks there is still more that can be done. “I think a good idea would be to increase pod sizes as the semester progresses if low COVID numbers continue. In a more extreme view, I think Vassar should be more strict about people leaving campus, and have on campus life close to normal. That…is what I expected when I heard of the ‘island model.’”

Although most students have become accustomed to Vassar’s safety protocols, some, like Stephen Han ’23, haven’t returned to campus since they left in March 2020. “I went into this whole pandemic as a second-semester freshman, and now I’m a second-semester sophomore, which is totally bizarre, sobering and sad to think about.” For the fall semester, 379 students decided to study remotely, and about half of that number remained home for the spring as well. Han commented, “In some ways, it feels like my college experience or my place at Vassar is less ‘real’ because I’m not on-campus.” Han also mentioned that he does appreciate the efforts Vassar makes to keep remote students in the loop, like weekly emails from Vassar’s Remote Student Engagement Initiative: “For me, just knowing that there are faculty members, student organizations and leaders, and administrators actively thinking of ways to integrate people who aren’t on-campus is reassuring.”

With vaccines being rolled out nationwide and around the globe, a post-pandemic reality is finally in sight. But, even after herd immunity is reached, things may not return to exactly how they were pre-COVID. Bradley anticipates, “Wearing a mask, particularly if one is not feeling well or having symptoms, I think may become part of the new normal. Regular testing if one has symptoms will be with us for a long time.”

Although Vassar students are increasingly receiving the vaccine, it might not cause much change in campus safety protocols until next semester. “We are hoping that the fall semester may be fully in person, with fewer limits on gathering, eating together, and socializing,” Bradley commented. “As far as this semester, we do not expect a large amount of the campus to be vaccinated until late May so the impact will be less dramatic.”

The Vassar community is counting down the days until the pandemic is over. DeMaria is most looking forward to reconnecting with loved ones and travelling, while the student who asked to be kept anonymous is eager for music performances. “I actually had tickets to a My Chemical Romance concert back in September,” they mentioned. “I’m looking forward to going to the rescheduled date for that.”

In the meantime, people are reflecting on what they have learned over the past year. Han observed, “The pandemic has reminded me to cherish family: To treasure and surround myself with those I love and those who love me because life’s too short not to.”

For DeMaria, the pandemic has highlighted the Vassar community’s dedication to learning. “I’m impressed with the strength of Vassar’s academic culture…We have a well-established identity as a community of learners and it is remarkably durable.” Bradley also applauded the strength of the Vassar community. “It is difficult to create a collective commitment and stick to it, and that is what Vassar has done. It isn’t perfect, but seeing students really look out for each other continues to be inspiring.”

Although some can see a few silver linings, others are simply ready for change. As the world crawls past COVID-19’s one year anniversary, Han’s words are more relevant than ever: “This pandemic has gone on for far too long.”

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