• Joey Goodsir

Rerouting: LFHS Class of 2020 Calibrates Turbulent Launch

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

By Joey Goodsir

When she got her acceptance letter to Princeton University last spring, Alex Slomba envisioned an exciting new learning and living environment on the beautiful campus in Princeton, New Jersey. COVID-19 changed everything, and instead of moving east in September, Slomba has been living at her parents’ home in Lake Forest and taking classes remotely.

“I sit in the same room all day, in the same spot, in the same chair, looking out the same window,” she said. “I’ve grown accustomed to it, but I do feel like it is a little sad that this is what it has come to.”

Slomba is not alone among her fellow students in the Lake Forest High School Class of 2020. As college and universities throughout the U.S. made dramatic changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many freshmen are spending their first semester at home. Others are living at school under strict rules, while others are taking an unexpected gap year.

Going to college has always been about learning to become more independent, but with COVID restrictions complicating everything, students are left on their own far beyond what they expected. Learning to be independent during a worldwide pandemic has created stress, but my classmates are resilient, and they have found ways to adjust to college life during this strange time.

I talked to many of my LFHS Class of 2020 classmates before Thanksgiving to see how they are getting along. This is the first story in a series about the 2020 College Recalibration. In this story we look at what life is like for students who are living on campus. Story 2 examines the experiences of Slomba and others who stayed home to take classes remotely. Story 3 looks at the gap year. In Story 4, the last in this series, we look to the future with uncertainty.

University of Illinois freshman (and LFHS Class of 2020 graduate) Grace Kellie relied on the outdoors, mask-wearing and frequent-testing guidelines for a successful social life in a semester that makes such things difficult. (Photo Courtesy Grace Kellie)

Going to School ... At School

On campuses across the country, many freshmen encounter the closest thing to a normal college experience. However, the dark cloud of COVID case exposure and subsequent restrictions can make it quite difficult for them to get comfortable – especially in a first semester that naturally prioritizes a social life to meet friends.

"I definitely have felt that tightrope of both trying to stay safe and social. I personally think there is no good way to meet friends without doing so in person – so any advertised ‘community-building Zooms’ ultimately don’t make much of an impact,” University of Michigan freshman Zach Rose said. "My initial strategy for making friends was basically just leaving my door open, and then someone may walk by and poke their head in, in which case I would strike up the conversation, exchange Snap[chat]s, and the usual. Occasionally we’d hang out in small groups in our rooms.”

The forced improvisation has created a variety of perspectives. Many students view the COVID guidelines as comforting safeguards.

“I have friends at home that are immunocompromised or would have issues if they got COVID, so it was really important to me that I would be safe and know right away if I got exposed or if there were any issues regarding that,” said University of Illinois freshman Grace Kellie. “Even though U of I is a really big party school, they really cracked down on parties and that kind of thing, so that has been very nice.”

Some, however, are more frustrated by the dent that COVID restrictions have made in student life.

“They have been very proactive about stopping the spread, which is great for public health, but it has really negatively impacted the social scene around here when it comes to meeting people, going to classes, and getting the college experience,” Billy Gardner, another Illinois freshman, said. “I might take a gap second semester if restrictions don’t loosen up.”

Gardner and other students have found creative ways to adapt to their circumstances.

“Even though you may not be able to congregate in a more traditional sense, you still have plenty of opportunities to meet people by going outside and playing Spikeball in the quad,” Gardner said.

For some students, the frequent-testing restrictions even provided an opportunity to socialize.

“It is sometimes difficult to find time to get tested as much as we do considering that you have to have not eaten or drunk in the last hour,” said Kellie. “But it has actually kind of become a social thing somehow. People will go together to get tested and then get food.”

Sophia Divagno chose the on-campus option at the University of Dayton because "I didn’t want to be behind in making friends and establishing a friend group." (Photo Courtesy Sophia Divagno)

While school protocols have slowed the spread of COVID, there have been many rapid case spikes on campuses, often attributed to large, rule-breaking gatherings of students.

With circles of each college community indulging in these restriction-free events and other circles recognizing them as massive irresponsibilities, student groups on campuses across the country have developed a growing “social distance.”

“There has really been a social split on campus between the kids who care more about the guidelines and kids who care less about them. I tend to follow them more, so it has been tough to meet people,” Harvard University freshman Litsa Kapsalis said. “Things are very pre-coordinated, so the spontaneity of meeting someone after class and becoming friends with them is completely gone. You basically make friends with those you see regularly because you are both associated with some common activity.”

But the very root of the temptation for some students to join the rule-breaking crowds has been a desire to avoid this high-discipline alternative. Many universities have spent the entire semester combating parties, while also understanding the motive behind them inescapably aligns with the reason many students came to campus in the first place.

“I decided to study on campus because I didn’t want to be behind in making friends and establishing a friend group,” Sophia Divagno, a freshman at the University of Dayton, said. “That was kind of my worst fear. I didn’t want to be the only one from my (LFHS) friend group home since all of us are currently on [our respective] campuses.”

Super-spreading parties have been blamed for most college COVID outbreaks, but students living on campus have learned their proximity to the virus is troubling even if they don’t attend big social events..

“We were definitely taking risks, in my opinion. I didn’t go to any frat parties or big gatherings, but I would definitely say I took some risks,” Michigan freshman Zach Rose said.

College in COVID Positivity: A Crisis of Culture

Nebraska freshmen Connor Clark had little more than a makeshift desk for an academic experience while in isolation housing due to a positive COVID test. (Photo Courtesy Connor Clark)

The students who have tested positive for the virus are now familiar with its contagious nature, and they reinforce the idea that this virus now reaches an even wider population than those who are not respecting guidelines.

“At the end of the day, people get it. It’s not like my friends and I were out doing anything stupid, it just kind of found its way to us,” said Connor Clark, a freshman at the University of Nebraska who had the virus earlier this month.

Students who have had COVID-19 have had to make quick healthcare decisions and spend more time totally alone than ever before.

Some have been sent to immediate quarantines in separate housing. Others have had help from their families in finding a place to spend the isolation period.

“My parents ended up having to come pick me up from the school because I wasn’t put into isolation for a while. I stayed in a hotel in Lincolnshire for two weeks instead, which was kind of a mess,” Sophia Divagno said. “Coming on campus I obviously knew there was a good chance I would get it, but I didn’t expect to catch it so soon, especially as Dayton required everyone to submit a negative test before arriving on campus.”

There isn’t one set of protocols that every school is following. Some schools are so flexible that students have had to decide for themselves what to do when they test positive.

“After I tested positive, I talked to some people on the phone about what I’m directed to do in that case, and moved into isolation the next morning,” Clark said. "I could have not been in isolation if I really wanted to – it’s not a requirement to report to the University [Nebraska]. So there’s that, but I feel like that could lead to a lot of miscounts in cases on campus, so I reported my case and was directed into separate housing.”

The variation of protocols from school to school often is due to cultural differences with COVID response sentiment between regions of the country. The range in which these realities vary, however, can be surprising – especially when you live in a state such as Illinois, with heavier restrictions, and are talking about states that don’t have nearly the same restrictions to control the health crisis.

"It’s a tricky situation because being in Illinois all summer and having all of the restrictions, it is a little appealing to have the option of escaping from that, to be honest,” said Holly Malnati, a junior at the College of Charleston South Carolina (LFHS Class of '18). "But I was shocked when I came down here: everything is open, and outside of some mask guidelines you wouldn’t even know the difference.”

Malnati tested positive for the virus in the first few weeks of the school year, with a quite different response environment at her school compared to others.

“Everything related to COVID through the college is completely voluntary, so you can volunteer to be tested and you can choose whether to report your case to the school or not. Every morning, we get your basic COVID survey, but you are not even required to answer it,” she said. “To be blatantly honest, it is kind of a free-for-all down here.”

While these students enjoy the benefits of a relatively typical college year, it comes with the dangerous price of a seemingly universal exposure to the virus across campus.

“It has just become so normalized here, which I think is really scary. My friends and I were just talking yesterday about how it is almost weird if you haven’t gotten it yet,” Malnati said. “I wish I could say that getting it has changed my level of caution and perspective, but it is just such a cultural thing: people down here don’t care, so it is so hard to care yourself when everyone around you is acting like it’s not going on.”

While some differences in COVID approaches are a result of culture, others are due to circumstance. For Nate Schmitt, who is in his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, this is the case.

“We don’t really have the choice to be on campus or not in a sense, obviously, so we’ve just been adapting to the changes as things come,” said Schmitt. Before Thanksgiving, Schmitt said he and his classmates "were in a hard ROM [Restriction of Movement] for a week just because of the COVID cases increasing in the community.”

The differences in flexibility between the traditional college experience and a military academy have always existed. However, it has become more of a stark contrast in the age of pandemic – the Midshipmen recently spent Thanksgiving at the Naval Academy, a reversal of a previous school decision that granted them overnight liberty (meaning they can sleep outside of the academy) for Wednesday and Thursday nights.

“We hope that we can get cases down so that more possibilities can be opened up with leaves and weekend liberty.” Schmitt said. “Things are looking up for next semester, however, just based on how we are preparing right now, so we should be in a better place in the future.”

Regardless of the environments from which various colleges are building their guidelines, the requirement for administrators to be on top of their game couldn’t be more consistently noticeable, as well as any failures to do just that.

“I’ve really felt like the administration has held an arrogance that kind of scares me, to be honest,” Michigan freshman Zach Rose said. “They feel like their plans are so great, but they are somewhat isolating themselves from crucial criticism and are unaware of some of the pervasive problems that are happening on the ground.”

All in all, an unprecedented time has brought unprecedented change to the on-campus experience of college, and students have been adapting to various circumstances in many ways.

Tomorrow this series will explore a popular alternative path, either set by schools or chosen by the students themselves, to start the 2020-21 school year: staying home and attending college online.