On a Nearly Empty Campus, 179 Remaining Students Redefine College Life

On a Nearly Empty Campus, 179 Remaining Students Redefine College Life

A dining hall without diners. Residential halls without residents. Classrooms empty of students. At small residential colleges like Amherst, where students live, eat and study in close quarters, there often remains little room for social distancing. For the 179 students housed on campus during the coronavirus pandemic, the tight-knit social connections quintessential to the college have become things of the past. 

With the college’s March 9 announcement that it would move to remote learning for the remainder of the semester, the vast majority of students were required to move off-campus. A petition process allowed students to request to remain on campus, for reasons ranging from international student status to mental health to extenuating financial circumstances. For those who successfully petitioned to stay, the college has implemented a variety of heightened safety measures to heed to social distancing recommendations. All buildings except Valentine Dining Hall (Val) and Moore Hall, Morrow Dormitory and Morris Pratt Dormitory — the three buildings in which students are housed, colloquially called the 3Ms — are closed, with students’ key cards only allowing them into Val and their own dorm. Val has transitioned to a takeout-only model, and all seating has been removed. Dining service workers serve all meals and drinks to ensure that students limit contact with the food — a shift away from the customizable self-serve options students were accustomed to prior to the coronavirus.

While students are permitted to leave campus to buy essentials in town, they are prohibited from leaving the area. According to Dean of Students Liz Agosto, who has coordinated much of the logistics for remaining students and also remains on campus, the college is trying to anticipate student needs so that leaving campus is kept to a minimum. Recently, Agosto and other administrators arranged a large snack drop-off in the dorms, as well as a stockpile of laundry detergent and other necessities. They also plan to provide students with masks, home exercise equipment and gift cards to streaming or gaming platforms for entertainment.

Atikah Adzhar ’20 panicked when she received the email notifying students to return home. An international student from Malaysia, she didn’t want to deal with visa issues and the 20-hour flight home, as well as a vastly different time zone than that of her remote classes, so she petitioned to stay and was accepted. 

“I wanted as little disruption as possible,” she said. Yet, to Adzhar, being on campus without most of its inhabitants has ushered in a different sense of disruptive difference. 

“You very much notice the signs of the lockdown,” she said. “It’s somewhat dystopic.” 

“We’re all hunkered down here,” Adzhar added. “It sucks, but I can’t complain, because there are definitely students who are at home with worse conditions.”

Still, she worries about her friends on campus who are immunocompromised and about the community in general. The college has enacted many safety measures, but students share bathrooms and open doors to the same buildings. Some people from the larger Amherst community still walk through campus.

“I know that they’re doing their very best, but it’s scary,” Adzhar said.

Students are still ordering food from Domino’s and other restaurants, and she often sees takeout being dropped off on campus..

“Yes, we still have bubble tea and pizza, and we should support the local businesses, but we should be careful,” she said.

Adzhar has been closely following the coronavirus news. She questions the college’s decision to send almost all students home, since some of them are “returning to worse situations than we have here [in Massachusetts.]” After seeing the U.S. and Europe’s response to the threat, a friend of hers chose to return to her hard-hit province in China, because she trusted the country’s crisis response more.

Kalin Combs ’23 petitioned to stay at Amherst because she believed her mental health would be better in a familiar environment. Combs’ best friend, April Dottin-Carter ’23 is also staying on campus, and her boyfriend attends UMass, so she felt that she would have more support on campus. Her initial request to stay was denied, but after she further explained her circumstances — her family’s new house  doesn’t have adequate space for her to work uninterrupted — the college allowed her to remain on campus. Soon after, Combs moved from her first-year dorm room in James to a single room in Morris Pratt. 

“My hometown [Lexington, KY] had a coronavirus outbreak at the time, and Massachusetts did not, and so I felt safer here,” she said.

Although campus feels emptier with the majority of students gone, Combs and other remaining students have found ways to entertain themselves. Combs has tried to maintain normalcy within social distancing guidelines and frequently studies with Dottin-Carter and others in dorm common areas, which remain open. 

“Many people who stayed still have friends here,” she said, “so we’re not completely isolated.”

Isa Maguire ’23 decided to stay on campus for his safety and mental health. Maguire had not planned to return home to Chicago for spring break regardless.

“I felt like I would be safer here in the middle of nowhere rather than in a big city,” he said.

Maguire tries to socially distance in bigger groups, but he doesn’t feel the need to socially distance one-on-one if he’s sure that the other person hasn’t been interacting with people outside of campus. Most people keep largely to themselves.

“We’re all in the same isolated environment,” he said. 

Braulio Paz, a Fulbright scholar from Uruguay and Teaching Assistant for the Spanish Department who has remained on campus, hopes that the school will organize more quarantine-friendly outings. He spends most of his day in his room working or taking walks outside, but he occasionally finds it hard to focus on his homework in his small dorm room.

“Some days I walk around, and I see literally nobody,” Paz said. 

Many of the other Teaching Assistants have left, and so Paz knows few people on campus. He was used to a thriving social scene in Newport, where he lived before the college’s transition to lockdown. Some students had been playing soccer on the now-empty quad or volleyball by Greenway, but those activities have been discouraged by administration due to their potential for contact.

“It’s not good to isolate yourself,” he said. “I wish we had more activities to do while social distancing, like group hiking or scavenger hunts.”

Agosto has also grappled with balancing students’ need for social interaction and the challenges of physical distancing. Safety measures would be tough to enforce for athletic activities, Agosto said: soccer, for instance, would be difficult to play at a constant distance of six feet between players. The Book and Plow Farm has planned activities and encourages students to work on the farm for pay. Some professors are planning to host get-to-know-you sessions over Zoom for bored students on campus. The college is constrained by government regulations that mandate groups of no more than 10 people at a time, making campus-wide activities difficult. 

Students can still spend time together at an appropriate distance, whether sitting in spaced-out Adirondack chairs on the quad, or spending time in their dorm’s common room with at least a chair’s distance between them. 

However, maintaining safety measures has been challenging. Agosto sent an email to on-campus students on April 6 regarding reports of risky behaviors among students including “beer pong, engaging with off-campus residents, allowing non-3M-resident guests or strangers into the 3Ms and gathering in large groups in the common spaces.” Students who continue such behaviors could be asked to leave campus. 

Agosto recognizes the toll that social distancing and isolation has taken on students. Still, any student who breaks safety regulations puts the whole campus at risk.

“It’s a delicate balance between protecting students’ wellbeing and protecting their safety,” she said.

According to Agosto, the college is prepared for even stricter isolation measures if someone in the community contracts the coronavirus. Students would then be spread out among all the residence halls so that nobody shares a bathroom. Val would likely be closed, and meals delivered to each students’ door. 

“This is about not only your safety, but the safety of your peers and the staff on campus,” she said. “We really need to understand community and responsibility. To willfully put people at risk is irresponsible.” 

The college has strongly encouraged students to stay on campus and notify the school of any transportation needs rather than taking public transportation. According to Paz, some grocery stores in the area have closed, including the nearby Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in Hadley. The CVS in Amherst remains open, as do Hadley’s Target and Walmart, but the latter two seem to be running low on inventory, Paz said. Employees of the stores told Paz that people had been buying inventory too quickly for them to restock in time due to the pandemic, following a trend that many stores across the country have experienced.

Restaurants in the town of Amherst have closed their doors for normal operational hours, but they still provide take-out options that many students have utilized. The college provided each student a freezer, refrigerator and microwave combination appliance so that students can store and heat food.

Agosto heard from the director of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield that Massachusetts has still not reached its peak in the number of coronavirus cases. She has attempted to impress upon students that just because there aren’t currently a large number of cases in western Massachusetts, does not mean that safety measures should be relaxed. In fact, stringent safety measures are likely some of the reasons for the relatively controlled number of cases.

Agosto encouraged students to come to her with any questions or concerns.

“I want everyone to be taking this seriously and to be doing everything they can,” Agosto said. “Parameters are not punishment. If we’re doing this right, it will feel like an overreaction.”

Correction on April 10, 2020: A previous edition of this article incorrectly stated that 176 students remained on campus. There are 179 students who remain on campus.