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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.