In March 2020, I was a sophomore at NYU when the coronavirus pandemic sent my classes remote. Holed up in my apartment during lockdown, I found it almost impossible to learn from virtual lectures. I was distracted, my Internet connection was constantly interrupted, and any natural dialogue was squelched by the divide of a screen.
I found the experience unsatisfying, depressing, and certainly not worth my tuition bill. That’s why I joined the thousands of American college students who took a break and postponed their education, with the expectation that schools would return to normal soon.
Now, almost two years later, nothing has returned to normal on many American campuses — including my own. Even though Dr. Anthony Fauci recently declared that we’re nearing the end of the “full-blown” phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mask mandates are easing across the country, many US colleges are still insisting on extreme precautions.
At the New School, despite a booster requirement, students spent the first several weeks of the spring semester online. Even though they had to take three COVID tests before shifting to in-person classes, they are required to wear one mask but encouraged to wear two, and are instructed to take their masks off to eat for no more than 15 minute intervals.
At Yale, the spring semester kicked off by mandating an in-room quarantine for students until they received a negative COVID test, followed by two weeks of remote learning and a campus-wide quarantine through Feb. 7. During that period, students were barred from going to local businesses and restaurants — even for outdoor dining. At Cornell, masks are mandatory indoors and still recommended outside, despite scientific evidence and CDC guidance showing that COVID doesn’t easily spread outdoors.
Of course, administrators must balance student health and well-being as well as liability issues, but restrictions like these are becoming less scientific and more detrimental to students with every passing day.
It’s ironic and deeply disappointing that, while the rest of the world is getting back to normal, institutions of higher learning — meant to be bastions of science, research and reasoning — continue to err on the side of maximum caution, despite minimal risks.
The science shows that students are among the lowest risk for adverse coronavirus outcomes. Just .001% of 15- to 24-year-olds are at risk of dying from COVID, according to Dr. Marty Makary of Johns Hopkins Medical School. He points out that the overwhelming majority of those young deaths were among the unvaccinated with pre-existing conditions.
As the coronavirus enters its junior year, nearly half of undergrads have never experienced campus life without COVID. Gone are the days of late-night pizza and fraternity parties. Many students now spend the majority of their time — the supposed four best years of their lives — within the confines of an 8-foot-by-10-foot dorm room. And, with their social lives driven online, students are even reporting that they’ve lost the ability to engage in small talk or make friends in person.
The quality of education has suffered, too. A wide variety of studies show that online classes are less effective than in-person instruction, and lead to measurable learning loss, especially among undergrads. Researchers have found that students learning remotely suffer grade losses and lower graduation rates than their in-person counterparts.
Meanwhile, those who stay in college are suffering. An incredible 95% of students say the pandemic has led to negative mental health symptoms, with nearly half saying they feel more isolated and lonelier. Amidst an already troubled generation, one in four Americans aged 18 to 24 has reported serious suicide ideation during the pandemic. A flurry of students taking their own lives even led to a campus closure at the University of North Carolina this fall.
“During virtual school, I found it impossible to divorce myself from the stress mindset of school, since I spent most of my time studying and reading just five feet away from the couch where I would sit and try to relax,” Luke Bunting, a student at Georgetown Law School, told me. “Even now, I worry that my mind has been trained to accept that stress and isolation mindset as the norm, and I am constantly trying to reset it.”
As their college experiences continue to suffer, many students have had enough. One 19-year-old Harvard freshman, who asked not to be identified, described how his fellow students quietly look to each other for permission to take off their masks.
“You’ll see someone sit down and take their mask off in the library. Then another person will look at that person, look around, and then take their mask off, too, as if checking to make sure it’s socially acceptable to do so. Many times, in parts of some libraries, more than half of students will have their masks off,” he said.
“It seems like there is a vocal minority of students who are supportive of restrictions, but when you talk in private discussions with students, many are fed up.”
As a result, many students are dropping out, postponing, or forgoing college altogether. Since 2019, college enrollment in the US has tanked by 6.6%, with the national undergraduate population shrinking by 1,205,600 students.
Fay Dubinsky, a master’s student of social work at Rutgers University, has attended classes remotely since the start of her two-year program, and said the experience has been difficult.
“I’m not receiving the full educational experience, which consists of lively class discussions and the opportunity to create deep friendships,” Dubinsky said. “Learning remotely doesn’t foster the kind of environment required for that.”
At Drexel University, the University of Miami, and the University of Colorado, students have filed lawsuits demanding a tuition break after being forced to leave campus for remote learning. At Georgetown, Luke Bunting co-authored a petition for a tuition cut after the school announced that the beginning of the spring semester would be held on Zoom despite mandating booster vaccinations.
“What’s the point of mandating the vaccines if they’re going to continue mandating every other mitigation measure?” Bunting said. “The school administration should either allow in-person learning for the whole semester or provide an appropriate reduction in tuition.” In a statement to Fox News, Georgetown Law School said: “The decision to move to remote learning… was driven by the operational disruptions that Omicron is almost certain to cause. We appreciate the desire for a firm return date and are hopeful that this interruption of our on-campus operations will be a short one.” Ultimately, the first two weeks of the spring semester were conducted remotely.
While many colleges aren’t providing the same quality of education, the average tuition has increased by 1% at private colleges and 2% at public schools for the 2021-2022 school year. Although many colleges tout astronomical endowments — climbing up to $41 billion at Harvard — and have also benefited from the CARES Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, some students have never seen a tuition break.
A few institutions, however, are making strides towards normalcy and some have even offered compensation for the 2021-2022 school year. Gordon College in Massachusetts cut costs by a third, Hendrix College in Arkansas by 32%, and Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey by a quarter. Diné College, a public school in Arizona, is even offering a free spring semester to students who completed the fall semester.
Because they already mandated vaccination and boosters, Siena College in Loudonville, NY, is allowing its students to choose whether or not to wear masks. Rather than implement a campus-wide mandate, individual professors are given the authority to determine the masking policy in their classrooms.
Meanwhile, colleges in Texas and Florida are prohibited by their governors’ executive orders to enforce mask or vaccination mandates. At the University of Florida, masks are requested but not required.
If universities want to halt the bleed, they must restore the normal college experience by easing mask mandates and committing to in-person learning. While provisions can and should be made to protect vulnerable community members on campus, students who face an infinitesimally small risk deserve to get their lives back.
As for me, I’m still on a break from college, working on other projects until I can be assured of a proper in-person education. Life — and youth — is too short to spend it constantly behind a mask.