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As Colleges Open During a Pandemic, Student Life Remains Closed

3 minute read

The typically bustling main campus of Pennsylvania State University is quieter than normal. Many students are tuning in to classes online from their dorm rooms. A town ban on gatherings of more than 10 people limits social life off campus. Mask requirements make recognizing faces and making friends more challenging.

“I can tell that the university is trying their best to give returning and new students the full experience that Penn State has the potential to bring,” says Sophia Melocchi, 20, a junior. “It’s just not the same.”

Across the country, colleges have taken a range of approaches to the fall semester. A Chronicle of Higher Education tracker of nearly 3,000 colleges found that of those with firm plans, 19% are opening primarily in person; 27% are primarily online; and 16% are, like Penn State, a mix.

But all are facing a semester unlike any other.

Schools that brought students back to campus quickly have run into problems controlling their behavior. Some have criticized universities for shifting blame for coronavirus outbreaks onto the returning students. Penn State recently suspended a fraternity that threw a party with about 70 people, and it reprimanded other students for gathering, without masks and close together, in large crowds outside a residence hall. “I ask students flouting the university’s health and safety expectations a simple question: Do you want to be the person responsible for sending everyone home?” Penn State president Eric Barron said in a statement. As of Sept. 4, more than 200 students at Penn State’s University Park campus had tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 21, and Barron said that trend could force a shift to fully online classes.

That’s already happened at other colleges. Several clusters of coronavirus cases in dorms at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led the school to cancel in-person classes and move to a fully remote model on Aug. 19, a week after classes began. At the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, more than 1,800 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to school.

The 40,000 undergraduates at Penn State’s University Park campus are hoping their institution does better. “I originally thought that we would be sent home or moved completely online within the first two weeks of school, but we’ll see how it goes, because it seems like the school has it under control,” says CJ Scoffone, 20, a junior. “I hope it gets better and goes back to normal.”

Katie Reilly, with reporting by Paul Moakley/New York

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Esther Gershenson, 18, Freshman. "Coming straight out of high school, it's been nice to get some freedom. We didn’t get the graduation we really wanted so we're gonna take anything we can get at this point. It’s just a hard transition because everything is unknown.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Inayah Johnson, 19, Sophomore. “I’m more of a hands-on learner, so learning through a screen isn’t really that helpful, and I don’t like talking over Zoom, so I don’t ask questions. Most of my interactions with professors are over email, so I’m not really building a relationship.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Faith United Church of Christ, State College, PA.Eva O'Leary for TIME
Michelle Mariette, 21, Senior. Liza Vecchiarello, 21, Senior Jordan Kalfon, 22, Senior “I’m personally kind of worried for my future and everyone else’s,” Vecchiarello says. “I’m a microbiology major, and I want to go into the medical research side of things. COVID is preventing me from attending a lot of these hands-on courses.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Cole McNair, 18, Freshman. “It’s just hard to go out and do things with the virus, but you gotta do what you gotta do till the virus is done. You just have to respect the guidelines.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Sophia Melocchi, 20, Junior. “I’m thankful that I get to experience Penn State, even if it’s only a percentage of the Penn State that I knew in the years previous.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Grant Davis, 21, Junior. “You honestly don’t feel as if you’re in school. You simply feel like you’re watching videos and you’re not part of the class.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Nichole Jiang, 19, Junior. “Honestly, I’m expecting to do worse this year, grades-wise, because it’s kind of different with everything being online."Eva O'Leary for TIME
Parker Gould, 18, Freshman. “In high school, I liked being able to ask teachers questions and talk to them at the end of class and get to know them, and that’s really hard to do now."Eva O'Leary for TIME
Seth Donnelley, 19, Sophomore. "I knew some of my classes were going to be virtual and now it turns out that all of them are."Eva O'Leary for TIME
A storefront at Penn State University. Eva O'Leary for TIME
Kaleigh Quinnan, 21, Senior. “I’m staying an extra semester because the economy just crashed, so I’m going to take some business classes. I’m hoping by the time I graduate, the dust will have settled a little, but mostly it’s a lot of anxiety.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
Aidan Brandt, 18, Freshman. “There is kind of a general fear of going home because people choose not to wear the masks, and there have been block parties and stuff.”Eva O'Leary for TIME
A list of drinking games on the side of a house. State College, PA. Eva O'Leary for TIME
Tajah Green, 19, Sophomore. “I have a dry-erase board with a calendar built into it. I got index cards to put reminders on, and I put everything in my phone so you don’t get sidetracked when you’re doing remote learning and you can focus."Eva O'Leary for TIME
CJ Scoffone, 20, Junior. “It definitely is different. Now there’s a dramatic difference of not that many people walking around because so many people are online.”Eva O'Leary for TIME

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com