“This is way looser than California.”
It was only her second day of classes at Pace University campus in lower Manhattan, and Kate Hill was already enjoying the less restrictive lockdown than the one she’d left back home in Santa Clarita, 30 miles north of the Hollywood sign.
“I went to the pier with some people from the dorm,” she said Thursday through her white cotton face mask. “Since we all live together, that’s OK.”
Kate was all set for freshman year at the University of Southern California. But when they went totally virtual and Pace was still offering the prospect of on-campus learning, she packed her bags and flew east. After two weeks of New York quarantine with friends at the Parsons School of Design, she’s beginning college life on a giant leap of faith.
“My mom was dead set against it, and the whole thing has been a little bit of a buzz kill,” she said. “But I worked so hard to get here, I’m not gonna waste it. My Critical Writing class and my Women and Gender Studies class are still supposed to be in person, and I couldn’t imagine just staying home. That’s too depressing.”
Pace, like a lot of New York colleges and universities, is still a work-in-progress this COVID-19 year. Some classes are in person. Some are online. There are intricate safety procedures in the dining halls, and the gym is still closed. On-campus students are required to fill out a daily health-screening form. Masks are mandatory. And the latest dictum from Gov. Andrew Cuomo hangs in the air, as it does for the state’s 471 other institutions of higher learning.
Also read: ‘Am I going to breathe right today?’
The schools must cancel in-person classes any time the new case count rises by 100 or more (or by 5% of the on-campus population of students and faculty at smaller institutions). Anytime that happens, the school must stay remote-only for at least two weeks, at which point administrators can reassess the situation with guidance from the local health department. It’s too soon to know yet how this campus or that campus might fare.
“We should anticipate clusters,” Cuomo warned in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “When you have large congregations of people, anticipate a cluster. Be prepared for it. Get ahead of it.”
Or as Kate put it: “Anything can happen. But from what I’ve seen, people aren’t doing anything stupid yet.”
Grayce Orser was sitting in the sunshine outside Beekman, a 34-story residence hall two blocks south of the Brooklyn Bridge, waiting for her friend Julia Musilli to come down. They’d met on Facebook FB, +0.34% and roomed together all last year, until the coronavirus went crazy halfway through spring semester and sent everybody scrambling home, Grayce to Carmel, New York, and Julia to Morris County, New Jersey.
This semester, the beginning of sophomore year, nothing feels quite the same. Julia’s on campus — for now — while her ex-roommate Grayce is attending classes remotely from her family’s upstate home. So this was just a short visit, once Julia came outside.
“It’s bad,” Grayce said. “School doesn’t feel like school right now, and I don’t think they really know what they’re doing. I’m supposed to be in an online class right now, but the teacher couldn’t figure out Zoom ZM, +2.29% . For $60,000, we shouldn’t have to teach the teachers how to do Zoom.”
“The school could definitely communicate better,” Julia agreed. “If all my classes go online, I’m going back home, too. There’s no reason to be here.”
In general, both women said, their fellow Pace students seem to be taking the virus seriously, more seriously than some other young people they know. Masks. No large parties. Narrow circles of friends.
“Some people are just irresponsible,” Julia said. “They are going out all the time. They don’t care who they’re with. They think if they got it, it wouldn’t be that bad.”
“I’m nervous,” Grayce said. “I don’t want to get sick. My dad is in the hospital. God forbid I get infected and give it to my dad.”
All colleges — not just Pace — are in a tough bind as the new school year begins. The virus, though reduced in New York, still rages many places. There’s still no cure and no vaccine. And students desperately want to be on campus. When they use the phrase “the college experience,” that doesn’t mean sitting at their parents’ dining-room table and staring into a laptop monitor, while paying retail tuition.
College is still an exciting time as new freshman Kate Hill makes clear. But just ask Grayce and Julia: Patience can run out quickly, even by sophomore year.
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.