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Last March, when state and local officials issued stay-at-home orders to contain the coronavirus pandemic, California’s college campuses became ghost towns. Life for many students assumed a new cadence, in which the need for safety eclipsed the pleasures of the college experience.

A year later, feelings of distance ⁠— from friends, family and real-life instruction ⁠— haven’t abated. 

Some students have used technology to combat isolation. With laptops and phones at the ready, childhood bedrooms have transformed into live action theater sets while student groups and clubs found new homes on Discord servers.

Golden hour sunlight reflects off the windows of UC Santa Barbara’s Rincon Hall on Aug. 4, 2020. Nearly all university-owned housing facilities remained empty through the winter quarter after closing last March following a UC-wide transition to remote instruction. Photo by Max Abrams for CalMatters
Ahmed Mohamed, left, an international student athlete from Qatar, stretches during a track workout at California State University Northridge alongside teammates Yanla Ndjip-Nyemeck, center, from Belgium, and Emmanuel Ihemeje, right, from Italy, on Oct. 20, 2020. The team was unable to train with coaches due to COVID-19 restrictions, but a small group of athletes gathered throughout the pandemic to do socially-distant workouts a couple days a week. Photo by Logan Bik for CalMatters

But remote instruction, now a matter of routine, still stings for many students. With few places to go, students look to break the monotony of days spent entirely at the kitchen table or in their bedroom by escaping to the outdoors. But college schedules, and the nature of distance learning, often force them to stay put.

Left: Nicole Hernandez who studies environmental health, is photographed at her home in Long Beach on Nov. 10, 2020. Hernandez found it difficult to adjust to online learning last semester at Fullerton College. “I had to drop my algebra course this semester, because I struggle with math and the resources just aren’t there,” she said. Hernandez also worried about making rent after losing hours at her restaurant job due to the pandemic. “It’s been hard to stay motivated.” Photo by Pablo Unzueta

Right: Nicolas Eismann, a freshman studying journalism at Long Beach State, sits for a portrait from inside his bedroom window where he has created a work space for online learning and journalistic practice. Eismann is a full-time student who also freelances full-time as a journalist. “One of the hardest things for me is probably staying motivated,” Eismann said on the challenges he faces. “I’m frustrated, too, because I’m signing up for all of these resources on campus that I can’t access, and yet I’m still paying full tuition expenses.” Photo by Pablo Unzueta

The pandemic unequivocally changed all campuses, sparing no university, or student, their sense of stability. If students returned to work or resumed their commitments on campus, they did so through a litany of safety guidelines and sanitizing protocols. Once-normal fixtures of life, like volunteering for a food bank or training for a sport, now feel like a break from the cycle of pandemic living.

Bao Lee, a graduate student in education and behavioral science, checks a list of food items to collect from the pantry shelves for distribution at Sacramento State University on Nov. 9, 2020. Lee worked with the Associated Students Inc. Food Pantry as a volunteer to help students in need of supplemental groceries. Photo by Rahul Lal
Surfers gather in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Coal Oil Point Reserve in Isla Vista, a popular beach for UC Santa Barbara students, on the evening of Nov. 12, 2020. Photo by Max Abrams

For those living near campus ⁠— but not on it ⁠— fewer rules applied. And public health guidelines, in some instances, fell on deaf ears. While most college students observed the social contract of not spreading the virus, others chose to pretend it didn’t exist.

A student checks their phone while waiting for the elevator beneath Eureka Hall at Sacramento State University on Nov. 9, 2020. With few students on campus, the normally busy throughway remained quiet for much of the day. Photo by Rahul Lal
Psychology major Merna Massoud, far left, keeps her distance while studying outside of the performance arts building at Cal State Northridge with her friends Vem and Nairi Nazarian, siblings who are majoring in chemistry and biology respectively, on Nov. 10, 2020. “It’s hard to study at home and it’s nice to get out in a less populated environment on campus and use the wifi to get some work done,” Massoud said of studying outdoors. Photo by Shae Hammond

That kind of neglectful behavior, however, proved to be costly. As cases rose among communities in which students partied, so too did the risks for those areas’ most vulnerable residents. Universities, along with local governments and law enforcement, stepped in with educational outreach, increased testing, citations and academic punishment.

Maskless students exit a house party in Isla Vista on Aug. 29, 2020 shortly after it was shut down by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office for violating county public health guidelines. The start of fall quarter at UC Santa Barbara saw the return of house parties despite campus and local guidelines against gathering. Photo by Max Abrams
A neon sign hangs in an apartment in Isla Vista on Sept. 10, 2020. Thousands of of UC Santa Barbara students returned to the college town of Isla Vista for the start of fall quarter while campus largely remained closed to students to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Max Abrams

As faculty and student employees finally start to receive vaccinations and universities plan for in-person instruction this fall, the desire for normalcy prevails. Students want to go back to school, and many are exhausted from sacrificing their time, money, safety and wellbeing to this pandemic. But if a return to learning side-by-side is near, one thing is certain: it will take effort on everyone’s part to get there.

Math major Javier Pacheco wipes down door handles at the Ernest E. Tschannen Science Complex at Sacramento State University on Nov. 9, 2020. Pacheco is a student safety ambassador, a group of students who patrol entrances to academic buildings to clean door handles and other frequently-touched surfaces. Photo by Rahul La

This project was produced by the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. It was written by Max Abrams, with photos by Max Abrams, Logan Bik, Shae Hammond, Ashley Hayes-Stone, Rahul Lal and Pablo Unzueta. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Shae Hammond is finishing her degree in journalism at California State University Northridge with a focus on photojournalism. Her interest in journalism began in community college when she was on the Roundup...

My name is Pablo Unzueta, I'm a full-time journalism student at Long Beach State and documentary photographer. I'm a first generation Chilean-American currently based in Long Beach, and was born and raised...