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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.”

Estupiñan will take classes through the UC but will do it from her parents’ home in Santa Rosa until campus reopens. She notes that housing is $9,000 per semester at Berkeley. She would just as soon save that money if she’s going to be chained to her laptop, anyway.

Some students are bowing out altogether. In a survey of 487 recent high school graduates conducted by Art & Science Group, 17% said they were certain or likely to delay full-time enrollment at a four-year institution this fall. That’s one reason colleges are hurting. Sonoma State, for example, is currently at 88% to 90% of normal capacity, according to school spokesman Robert Eyler. The Rohnert Park university normally can accommodate up to 3,223 students in campus housing. Current state and county health guidelines limit that number to 1,325 beds.

So far, however, the predicted stampede toward the “gap year” has not materialized. According to Sallie Mae’s annual “How America Pays for College” report, just 2% of students said they would take a gap year in 2020-21. That percentage could increase, however, if more schools close classrooms.

Students may be more likely to opt for campus if they are part of nonacademic groups. Athletes, for example. Swinth, a Cal Poly freshman who graduated from Maria Carrillo High in June, is a mechanical engineering major, and he says many of his classes will, and must, be conducted in person. He also runs cross country. On Wednesday, he learned that his conference, the Big West, is delaying all fall sports until 2021. But he’ll still be able to train with teammates, and that was a big draw.

Freshman Sophie Vargas feels the same way. She’s a Sonoma Academy graduate who will join the UC Santa Barbara soccer team, another Big West fall program in limbo. But like Swinth, Vargas will be able to practice. It’s enough to get her to Southern California, though all of her classes at UCSB are going online this quarter.

“I think being an athlete would make it a little more normal,” Vargas said. “It’s kind of a built-in group that you’ll be with. No matter what, as a freshman, we’d be spending so much time with the team that it probably would be kind of similar. But everything else besides the team and the sport would be really different.”

Underlying every college decision is a consideration of safety. A story published by the New York Times on Wednesday linked at least 6,600 known coronavirus cases to college campuses since the start of the pandemic, though fall semesters and quarters have yet to begin. Those cases include four students at Sonoma State last spring, as confirmed by Eyler.

Classroom settings have to be a concern during an active pandemic. Dormitories and dining halls might be worse, not to mention sporting events and frat parties.

Bronwyn Schmidt has concerns about all of that. At 32, she’s an older student. Schmidt lives in Sebastopol with her partner, and she isn’t at Dominican University for the kamikaze shots or open mic night. She has already incurred significant student debt in the nursing program. She wants to earn her degree, get a job and begin to pay off loans.

So Schmidt was dismayed to learn that Dominican was insisting upon in-person classes this fall. She knows some labs are much more effective in person, and she’s fine with her clinical rotations at nearby hospitals. But Schmidt insisted her classroom lectures, which might hold as many as 30 students, were unnecessary. And she’s familiar with those rooms. They’re in lovely Victorian buildings with poor ventilation.

Schmidt called and emailed the school to voice her concerns. So did some of her fellow nursing students. But the administration wasn’t budging.

On Wednesday, Schmidt said she felt trapped by the situation. She texted Thursday morning to say Dominican was moving some programs online, but not nursing. Then she phoned Thursday afternoon with another update: Her class lectures were going remote.

Asked whether she felt grateful or simply worn down by the process, Schmidt said, “A little of both. Right now, it’s just relief. My safety is more of a guarantee. But it’s also a frustration. We had to work so hard to fight for ourselves as students when many campuses have made this decision a long time ago.”

Schmidt’s up-and-down week was not a rarity. Almost everyone interviewed for this story had received at least one major announcement from their university or department over the past few days. It speaks to the fluidity of college curricula right now, and how hard that makes it for students to plan.

No one knows this dynamic better than the Foley family of Santa Rosa, a clan that is gradually assuming the crimson of the University of Alabama.

Cameron Foley, who is about to start her junior year, was the first to find her way to Tuscaloosa. This year she will be joined by her brother, Jack, a freshman. Unlike the big California schools, Alabama will hold most of its classes in person this fall. And while many campuses are reducing dormitory populations ― converting two-person rooms into one-person rooms, for example ― Bama is going in the opposite direction. Demand for space is so high that Jack will be sharing a dorm room that last year housed a single person.

“It’s a free-for-all out here,” Cameron Foley said.

She speaks from experience. Cameron tested positive for the coronavirus on June 16 while living in Tuscaloosa. She believes she got it at the salon where she was working ― a salon she reported to the local police when it reopened earlier than allowed, and which ultimately got a waiver from Republican Gov. Kay Ivey to stay in business.

A lot of young people experience few or no symptoms when they contract this virus. Cameron Foley, who has an asthma condition, was not one of them. Her oxygen levels bottomed out, and it became hard for her to walk to the mailbox.

“It leveled my healthy, vibrant, outgoing girl for six weeks,” said her mother, Tiah Foley.

Cameron is back in Tuscaloosa, though, and working again at the salon. She hopes she has acquired some degree of protection from antibodies, but isn’t counting on it. “I don’t believe in immunity as much as I believe in bad luck,” she said.

She gains some relief from knowing she lives off campus and already has a core group of friends she can hang with. That’s not true of Jack. He’ll be in introductory classes with 300 people. He isn’t blind to the risk, but doesn’t want to fall behind socially as he makes this major life transition.

“I feel I’d be set back if I were to stay back home,” Jack Foley said. “I want to take that next step, get out there, still take all the precautions I possibly can. But I want to start my new journey.”

It’s a lot for a mother to process.

“Do I think he’ll get COVID? Absolutely,” Liah Foley said. “I’d be naive to assume he wouldn’t.” She added: “We have nothing to lose by going. He could get it just as easy here in Sonoma County. It only takes one person to be exposed to, to go down.”

Just one more component in what has become an incredibly complicated and fraught calculation for young adults all over Sonoma County. It doesn’t seem fair, just as the wildfires, floods and power outages of the past few years have been an outsize set of hurdles. Students are adapting as best they can.

“I look at my situation and say it’s minuscule compared to others,” Swinth said. “Also, we’re so fortunate with our lives and where we live. So this seems very small. I mean, I guess this is a global pandemic, which no one had experienced yet. But on the grand scheme of things? I’m healthy, my family’s healthy. I’m enjoying life, running, keeping busy. I just don’t really let myself get down too much on it.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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