After months of seclusion and reclusion, many students have finally returned to the Amherst campus. Nearly all the elements of pre-quarantine life have been maintained in some way: academics, extracurriculars, social life, the campus itself. But what about romance? Even in normal times, dating is fresh and risky. But what about during Covid, when the school has to maintain a perfect social bubble from the rest of the world? I spoke to Amherst students, single and in relationships, about dating on campus during Covid and what the safety of our community means to them.
Life on campus is very different than before. Students must be socially distanced at all times, in masks and six feet apart. Venturing off campus is prohibited, as is welcoming non-residents into residence halls (even if they are Amherst students). The extent to which the student body plans to follow these rules, however, is less certain.
As such, assembling a romantic life is an enormous challenge. But these on-campus safety restrictions have not stopped students from pursuing their romantic lives.
One student I interviewed thought going on outdoor dates was “old-fashioned, wholesome and low pressure.” However, she was not sure that she would feel this way for long.
As the weather changes and grows colder, the question of following all the school’s guidelines will be even more fraught. Only three weeks into classes, a number of students I spoke to have already entered dorms other than their own, for casual dating and hookups.
Starting a relationship during Covid is hard enough, but what about breaking up? Another student grappled with the consequences of having broken up with her significant other during Covid. They have both returned to campus. She feels that the lifestyle of Covid has made it hard for her ex to accept their breakup. They met to discuss their breakup, and she struggled to base her life around both the Covid guidelines and her personal needs.
“You can’t just go over and say hi to someone. You really have to plan it and be more organized than otherwise,” she said.
But she appreciates the social restrictions in other contexts. She found that it’s nice to be able to avoid her ex so easily, given that there are no parties or shared social spaces. But at the heart of it all, Covid had put stress on her breakup. She spoke about her ex coming to terms with the end of their relationship:“There’s this whole ‘what if’ question going on. What if things were normal? Would this be what’s happening? It’s hard to come to terms with the situation, but this is the situation…”
In addition to speaking with singles, I talked to three couples. They all live on campus this semester and had been dating well before the start of the Covid-19 quarantine. With a “foot in the door” for their relationships, these couples all decided to live in the same neighbor groups.
They appreciate being able to spend so much time with their significant others and enjoyed the close proximity. As such, none of these couples need to enter dorms other than their own. They do spend time in each other’s rooms without masks. They also closely monitored their interactions with people outside their neighbor groups and communicated these expectations with their neighbor groups.
But how do they spend their time?
All three couples were more boring than I thought. They watch TV and movies, study together in the evenings and go on walks on the Norwottuck Bike Trail. As studious Amherst students, they all noted that their workload restricted their relationships more than anything Covid related.
But all three couples wished they could engage in the behaviors that one might imagine a college relationship to contain.
“There’s not a lot of things we can do,” said one couple. “We can’t go anywhere, if we wanted to go to movies or to dinner, typical romantic date stuff. We can’t really hold hands outside (but sometimes we do!),” one said.
Every student I spoke to — not just those in relationships — struggled to balance their romantic life with their responsibilities to maintain the safety of the campus community.
One couple described how the fundamental situation of Covid-19 brings forth their personal disagreements. Because they do not share the same beliefs about the use of vaccines — one is pro-vaccine, the other is anti-vaccine — they are uncertain about the state of their relationship after the Covid-19 vaccine is released.
But for most students, the moral question around dating is inherently tied to the wrath of the school administration. All participants specifically requested to be anonymous in this article because they thought the school might punish them for deviating from Covid guidelines, a fear that I’m sure all students on-campus share.
Moving forward, a lack of communication between students and the school may have unforeseen consequences. One student went on a hookup with a student in a different dorm. The next day, she experienced physical symptoms that gave her cause for concern. She began to walk to the health center but stopped herself. She was afraid of being kicked off of campus, even though she legitimately needed medical assistance. And what if a student experienced sexual assault? Would they be safe to report it to the school without being punished for breaking Covid guidelines?
Although the living situation on campus this semester hardly makes it easy to be romantic, everyone I spoke to was more confident than they were concerned. While it has been easy to slink away from personal relationships in the last few months, students on campus have a unique opportunity to engage in a healthy community and foster all of the facets of college life. No other college in the country has the possibilities we do. Maybe, at the end of the semester, we’ll be sharing all of the new relationships that have been formed, not just those that could have been.