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A semester in solitude

After spending the fall in their bedrooms, students say their mental health has suffered

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Many Universities in the D.C. region have announced that the Fall 2020 semester will be fully online.
Photo by Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post via Getty Images

Georgina DiNardo’s first virtual class is at 9:45. It’s Introduction To Communications — she’s a TA, so she’s responsible for sharing her computer screen with the class to display articles and other visual aids. At 11, she has a short break — she walks around the room to stretch her legs. By 11:20, she’s back on Zoom for a macroeconomics class (as a student, this time). For the rest of the afternoon, she edits and writes for The Eagle, American University’s newspaper, communicating with her colleagues in a pile of Slack channels. Then, homework. 

DiNardo, a sophomore at American, and her roommate have to negotiate space (they both have Zoom classes every day). One takes their shared bedroom, and one takes the dining room table. DiNardo prefers the former — it’s easier to focus in a small private space — but, “We kind of rotate on how we’re feeling.” Whichever room DiNardo ends up in, she’s there the entire day.

DiNardo walks to campus about once a week for a change of scene. Sometimes, she studies on the quad or in one of the few buildings that are open, as far away from other people as possible. Occasionally, she meets up with other students in her classes, and they watch their Zoom lectures together. “We can feel like we’re in the classroom,” she says. Plus, “It keeps me from dozing off and going on my phone.”

But walking around an empty campus can also be eerie — it’s a reminder of what’s been taken away. 

DiNardo is one of hundreds of thousands of US students who were tasked with cobbling together a college experience from their bedrooms this year. American, like almost half of colleges across the US, taught all courses primarily or fully online. Students took classes, did homework, met with clubs, applied for internships. Many, like DiNardo, even lived by campus, down the hallway from their classmates.

On paper, that semester looks fairly similar to pre-COVID life. And since the first wave of closures in March, onlookers have wondered: if school can happen online, why have campuses at all? Writers decreed that COVID-19 was the end of college as we know it. A former college president predicted that the online semester would push students to switch to lower-cost online degree programs. 

But the virtual fall neglected one important component of the college experience: mental health. For the seven students, faculty, staff, and administrators that I spoke to, this semester brought to light how important an in-person community is to many students’ well-being — and how difficult that is to replicate over Zoom.

DiNardo started out the fall semester optimistic — she hadn’t minded a few weeks of online classes in the spring. But after spending day after day indoors, in front of computers, she could tell that her friends weren’t doing well. Everyone’s becoming a ball of stress,” she said.

Then her own behavior started to change. She was taking longer to get out of bed. She wanted to sleep all the time. She was wearing darker clothing. Toward the end of the semester, she was on the phone with her doctor, trying to schedule an appointment, and suddenly burst into tears. 

DiNardo and her friends aren’t alone. Jay Gilmore, an assistant professor of journalism and strategic media at the University of Memphis, tried his best to keep his pupils meeting (over Zoom) regularly, with assignments on a routine schedule, to make this semester “as normal as possible.” But as classes went on, he saw his students lose motivation — grades slipped. “If a class started at 9:40, I would see students rolling over in bed at 9:39,” Gilmore said. 

Gilmore doesn’t think the sluggishness has anything to do with his instruction. He says his students are lonely, and the isolation is taking a toll on their mental health. Research backs him up: in a survey of US college students published in September, 71 percent of respondents reported increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19. Of those, 86 percent cited decreased social interaction as a factor. 

“It’s such an important time for young adults to feel a sense of community, and their main developmental task is to be establishing their identity with their peers,” said Michael Alcee, mental health coordinator at the Manhattan School of Music. “Having that short-circuited by this pandemic is particularly difficult, psychologically and emotionally.”

“If a class started at 9:40, I would see students rolling over in bed at 9:39”

It’s certainly possible to socialize online. But it’s different — and, students told me, less fulfilling — in a couple significant ways.

For one, when you’re spending a full day on Zoom, socializing on Zoom doesn’t always feel like a break — it feels like yet another thing you have to do on Zoom. Emma Marszalek, a junior at George Washington University who spent the semester at home in New Jersey, hasn’t attended the movie screenings, trivia nights, guest performances, and other virtual events that her school has put on. “As cute as it is... I can’t bring myself to go onto another Zoom meeting,” she says. 

There’s also the lack of spontaneity — chatting over Zoom requires setting aside time, which is already in short supply for many students. Grabbing a quick coffee on the way to class or running into an acquaintance in the library is off the table. “At school, I could see someone, and even if we talk for five minutes walking from one place to another, it fits better into your schedule,” Marszalek says. “Now, if I want to talk to someone I have to text them, which is effort, and then schedule a time when we FaceTime.”

And meeting new people, while still possible during a virtual semester, can be a daunting prospect. Allen Kenneth Schaidle, a PhD student in higher education and organizational change at UCLA, says his university has encouraged students to reach out virtually and connect with others in their classes — but he thinks that’s too much onus to put on them. “We’ve seen that message coming from these offices that ‘We’re doing the best we can, but it’s also up to you to start reaching out to people,’” he says. “We should also fill these gap times where students might be having organic social interactions on campus... and I’m not seeing that.” 

These may seem like simple enough things. But they’re aspects of college social life that many students and university members took for granted in the past.

“People re-evaluated what’s really important,” says Alcee. Alcee held counseling sessions over Zoom this semester — as well as by phone, for students who were tired of Zoom. He says he’s worked with introverted students who were initially excited not to have to socialize but started missing it. He also worked with social students who, until this year, hadn’t realized just how necessary their social circle was to them. For both groups, video calls didn’t cut it. 

Gilmore hosts a podcast where he speaks to students and educators around the country — and he’s talked to very few who are happy. Many of them underestimated how lonely pandemic college would feel. “Just being in the university center with other students ... getting together for a football game at the stadium, I think we all had taken that for granted in recent years,” said Gilmore. “And 2020 has shown people want to get back to that, they want to get back to human interaction.”

Every student and educator I spoke to is aware of the seriousness of COVID-19. None of them questioned the importance of taking precautions or the necessity (in some regions) of moving classes online. But students did say that when they return to campus, they’ll be investing a lot more in their community. 

“I can’t keep budgeting every minute of my time to schoolwork”

“There will be a greater level of appreciation for the smaller things,” said Schaidle. “Being in class, getting to know your peers, walking around on campus.”

Marszalek decided to drop one of her two majors so that she can spend more time socializing whenever she returns to George Washington. This semester brought “this realization that I can’t keep budgeting every minute of my time to schoolwork or classwork, because ... I want to be able to actually see people and do fun things,” she says. “I can just experience being with my friends, going on adventures.”

“I want to take advantage of that stuff,” she added. “Because it’s not always available.”