On a hot and sticky night last week, a first-year student at Wellesley College sat alone in her dorm room, gazing at the empty blue mattress where her roommate was supposed to be.
Laura Umana’s unfaltering optimism had helped her weather many disappointments this year. Her prom was canceled, her high school graduation was canceled, she had a roommate picked out, but then the college said everyone would be housed one to a room.
Still, nothing quite prepared her for the strangeness of spending her first days of college alone in quarantine.
“I was literally with my family two hours ago, and now it feels like I’m in a completely different world. I’m completely isolated,” she said in a phone interview from her new dorm room on the night she moved in. “I think normally I’d be at an orientation right now, meeting all my friends, exploring the campus.”
Umana, who is from Queens, is one of tens of thousands of college students moving into Greater Boston this month to begin what will be the most unusual academic year in modern history. Most colleges are requiring arriving students to stay alone in their dorm rooms for some period of time until they test negative for COVID-19. It’s a necessary precaution that runs counter to everything the first days of college are supposed to be about: spontaneous gatherings, unexpected conversations, exploring a new city.
The quarantine rules are designed to prevent large campus outbreaks like the ones that have already occurred elsewhere. Skyrocketing cases at the University of North Carolina forced the school to revert to online learning a week after the campus reopened. There are now more than 26,000 cases at more than 750 colleges and universities nationwide, according to a New York Times survey, including more than 500 positive cases at the University of Alabama, one of the largest outbreaks so far. Many of these outbreaks are in places where students have openly ignored social distancing and mask protocols. So far the number of cases reported by local schools is minimal.
The length of quarantine varies by institution; some schools release students after one negative test, while others have differing rules depending on the infection rate in the state a student comes from. At Boston University, students who come from high-risk states are advised to stay in isolation until they have three negative tests, which normally takes about a week. At Northeastern, students will also be tested three times but will be able to leave their room if the first test comes back negative.
Penalties also vary. At BU, students who violate quarantine rules will be kicked out of campus housing.
Some unlucky students have to isolate for as long as 14 days. Draken Garfinkel, a 19-year-old Brandeis student from Arlington, was startled when university contact tracers called to inform him that a friend of his he’d spent time with recently had tested positive. Even though the friend eventually tested negative, Garfinkel was required to stay in his room for two weeks.
It’s a long time to be in a room by yourself, especially with no time to prepare. He’s tried to use the time productively by devising plans for two student organizations he helps lead, and exercising using a mortar and pestle he put in a bag as a weight. But little things have begun to grate: the trash nobody’s picked up in the hallway outside his room; the difficulty of getting clean clothes and ordering his books.
“I was trying to talk to people and nobody was really responding, and I felt abandoned, and like I didn’t matter,” Garfinkel said.
At Emerson College, Tristen Pon had to isolate longer than he’d expected because the school’s testing operation wasn’t yet open when he arrived from San Francisco. Pon, an RA this year, worries about how he’ll help his younger charges endure their first days at college.
“I definitely had a complete mental breakdown being here,” he said about his quarantine. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a freshman right now.”
Pon said the cereal, sandwich, and salad delivered daily to his room left him feeling hungry most days. He passed the time working out on the floor of his bedroom, which only made him hungrier.
“I want to be the most positive person ever, but it’s hard to be positive when you only get two meals and the meals are pretty much the same,” he said.
Arriving at college normally means a whirl of formal and impromptu gatherings, often till all hours of the night. The afternoon that Umana arrived on the Wellesley campus she had little to do, and couldn’t meet the other women on her floor. The dining hall is closed except to pick up food and students must stay in their rooms until they test negative.
She unpacked some boxes and hung a few clothes in the closet, but she saved her large suitcase to unpack the next day, while she waited for her test results, to give her something to pass the time.
Umana is glad Wellesley has strong safety measures; perhaps more than many of her peers, she understands the ruthlessness of the virus. At home in New York this spring, she lived just four blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, a public institution that was overloaded with COVID-19 patients. Her mother contracted the virus, but Umana escaped it.
Wellesley, like many colleges, has reconfigured its academic year. Classes begin Monday and will be a mix of in-person and remote. For the first semester, only first- and second-years are on campus, taking two classes at a time over two quarters. Students are discouraged from leaving campus and asked not to return home for Thanksgiving. In the spring, third- and fourth-years will come to campus and Umana will complete the year at home.
The Wellesley administration has worked to make the beginning of college this year as welcoming as possible, given the circumstances.
During move-in, the school created virtual activities students can participate in from their rooms, including a remote version of bingo, a Wellesley tradition, and online tours of the school’s art museum. Staff check in with students to help them with any concerns or even just bring them a cup of tea, according to Sheilah Shaw Horton, vice president and dean of students.
The college has added extra counseling services this year, including virtual groups where students can meet and talk together about the stresses and anxieties of the pandemic.
Over the summer Umana watched orientation videos that showed the campus brimming with cheerful young women, waving and smiling as new students arrived. When she and her family arrived, it was mostly empty, save for three students holding signs and wearing masks.
Her parents and younger brother were allowed to drive onto campus to drop her off, but not allowed inside. They hugged and took a photo as RAs wheeled her belongings into the dorm. Five minutes later, they were gone.
“It was really quick, but at least I got to hug them all at the same time,” she said.
Umana lucked out, getting a room larger than most. She plans to turn the extra bed into a couch, even though she probably won’t be allowed to have other students come hang out.
“At first I was like, ’Oh, my God, this feels like a jail, what can I do? I’m literally stuck inside,’ ” she said. “But now I’ve come to peace with it because I think it’s going to make all of us closer as a class.”
Mental health specialists have said it’s imperative that institutions focus extra attention on students’ emotional well-being this semester.
“During COVID, we are so focused on the physical . . . there is often this worry that we forget about how important the mental is here,” said Sian Leah Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College in New York City, which is all remote this semester.
Today’s youth already experience increased levels of depression and anxiety, and now they are also coping with a public health crisis, economic disaster, and a season of social justice reckoning, Beilock said. Nevertheless, she said, she has been impressed by students’ resilience.
“The young people give me hope,” she said, “and we should give them credit for what they are doing.”
Umana has tried to stay upbeat. On Wednesday night, her first night in the dorm, the dining staff lost her quarantine food order, but an RA found her an extra meal: a hamburger, fries, fruit, and salad.
Her dorm windows span an entire wall, and light filters in through tall trees. She occasionally sees people walking along the wooded trail outside, which somehow makes her feel less alone.
It would be another two days before Umana’s test results came back negative, allowing her to leave the dorm. She spent the first night of quarantine watching Netflix and applying to campus jobs. She had thought about attending a virtual game night the school organized.
“It feels completely bizarre that I’m in this room right now,” Umana said. “I expected to have this feeling that I’m starting something new, but it feels like it’s an extension of something — an extension of quarantine.”