Sonoma County college students facing difficult choices on whether to return to campus
Fortunately for Grace Yarrow, she doesn’t have much need for her East Coast winter clothes during a summer in Petaluma. Still, there are times when she misses a sweater to complete that certain outfit.
Yarrow has been without many of her personal items since mid-March. That’s when she flew home with one suitcase for spring break from the University of Maryland. A week later, the school notified students that spring semester would be online. Yarrow hasn’t been back since. Her abandoned possessions wait at her roommate’s house in Maryland.
“She still has it all in her garage,” Yarrow said. “I have no idea when I’m gonna get my stuff back. Every so often, I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I wish I would have brought one more thing home with me.’”
Colton Swinth has no such separation issues. Most of his college accessories are right where he can see them ― at his house in Santa Rosa, in place for the big move to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in September.
“I have it sitting underneath our pool table in our living room, ready to go,” Swinth said.
Two local college students, two different strategies. Yarrow is living at home this year. She’s taking a break from being a Terrapin, and will take classes at SRJC for at least the fall semester. Swinth is heading off to campus at SLO.
It’s tempting to say they chose the two major options for college kids right now: go or stay. In reality, there are an array of possibilities, none of them perfect under the circumstances, those circumstances being a global pandemic that has turned life upside-down. Some are signing up for in-person classes. Some are moving near campus and taking online courses. Some are doing that from home. Some are taking a classic gap year, others biding time at a JC for at least a few months. And some aren’t even sure what they’re doing as they wait for their university to make a final decision on fall 2020.
Like so much in the time of COVID-19, a collective ritual of summer ― the mass scattering of 20-year-olds to tree-shaded brick buildings all over America ― has become splintered, confusing and undercut by a vague feeling of dread.
“I feel like I’m in the position of trying to decide if I pick my health and safety or my education, which is a terrible position to be put in,” said Bronwyn Schmidt, who is enrolled in a nursing program at Dominican University in San Rafael.
And it’s more complicated than that when you consider study environments at home and in dormitories, peer influence, the contraction of campus life, housing questions and, of course, cost.
At least one major factor lies outside a student’s control: the mode of education being offered at her or his school.
The College Crisis Initiative, a research group formed at Davidson College in response to the pandemic, has created a dashboard that charts fall reopening plans. As of Friday, the initiative had heard from 1,459 four-year colleges. Of those, 446 will be primarily in-person, 273 primarily online, 42 fully in-person and 41 fully online, while 320 will offer hybrid instruction and 337 schools were still forming a plan or didn’t fit any of the general categories.
Students are keenly interested to know whether they can meet teachers and classmates in person, or if they will be following lectures via Zoom and other online platforms. That was perhaps the deciding factor for Yarrow, a journalism major who is interning at The Press Democrat. She’s not sure she would have headed back to Maryland if the university had reopened classrooms, but says she would have at least considered it. Not so for online classes. The ones she took last spring were less than ideal.
“Most of them were just like my professors videotape themselves doing lectures,” Yarrow said. “My journalism classes, both of those we had actual Zoom meetings, which was nice, because we got to actually see people. It was a little iffy, because those classes weren’t designed to be online.”
Swinth acknowledged the social aspects of college weighed heavily in his decision making.
“What’s drawing me down there, for sure, is the town itself,” he said. “I love San Luis Obispo. And just getting out of Santa Rosa for a little bit. It will be a great experience either way. Working hard for the past four years academically and athletically to make it into something like this.”
The live vs. online distinction makes money a greater consideration. College is a huge expense for almost everyone, and part of what most families pay for is the full campus experience.
“Orientation, college parties, things around Berkeley,” explained Liz Estupiñan, a recent Elsie Allen High School grad who is preparing to start her freshman year at UC Berkeley. “A lot of this is different, but I think the biggest bummer is not getting to meet people you’d meet in person.”