AMHERST — The semester has just started and, already, there is a critical test facing the young college students lined up behind the handsome 9,400-seat sports arena here at the University of Massachusetts' flagship campus.
It has nothing to do with the square root of Pi.
Or a deep examination of Franklin Roosevelt’s fateful presidency.
Or the ingredients of global warming and its effects on Arctic sea ice.
No, this test is simpler than that. And vastly more consequential.
It involves a quick nasal swab. And the results can be, quite literally, a matter of life and death; the difference between life on campus and virtually learning from your childhood bedroom far from Amherst.
“I’m not too worried because I’ve learned the precautions that need to be taken as well as how the virus spreads,” Clement Boaheng, a 24-year-old first-year graduate student from Worcester, told me here the other morning from behind the wheel of his 2019 blue Infiniti.
Boaheng, who received his undergraduate degree here from UMass in 2018, is studying public health, and knows what is at stake. He’s wearing a mask. He’s keeping his distance. He’s praying for a vaccine.
“I’m a big basketball player,” Boaheng, who lives off campus in nearby Sunderland, told me the other morning just after his nasal swab at one of three stations set up behind the Mullins Center. “There’s only one hoop in the area, which is tough. So I try to go super early or super late.
“That’s the only safe way. I try to play by myself.”
Solo basketball. That could be the enduring metaphor for college life in the autumn of 2020 when an historic pandemic has upended the normal rhythms of life from the office to the playground, from the coffee shop to daily workouts at the local gym.
"I can’t believe this is our life now. I’m really speechless about it,'' said Caroline Ricciardi, a 21-year-old senior from Cherry Hill, N.J., enrolled in the UMass College of Nursing. “I’m sad. Just because it’s not what you signed up for when you were a freshman, you know?
“But I’m not angry. I’m sad. That would be the overwhelming emotion.”
There’s a lot of that going on these days.
If your image of college life is playing Frisbee on the quad, or sharing laughs with roommates in a dorm room overflowing with friends, or small-and-intense seminars dissecting the literary works of Shakespeare, you need some remedial assistance.
And if you think the students are now facing some alternate higher educational universe, listen to UMass administrators like Jeff Hescock and Ann Becker who this year faced the academic equivalent of building the boat while it’s already steaming offshore.
Hescock is UMass’s executive director of environmental safety and emergency management. Becker is the UMass public health director, a post she’s held for nearly 20 years.
They’ve seen viruses. They’ve seen waves of flu. They’ve never encountered anything like what has swept over one of the largest residential campus housing systems in the United States.
The pandemic has forced the university to invite only those students to campus who could not complete their coursework online, drastically reducing the population in UMass’s dorms and rental units in surrounding communities. Just about 1,100 students now live on campus, compared with more than 13,000 in normal academic years.
That explains the slogans on the T-shirts they sometimes now wear: “It’s hard but it helps.” Or: “It’s weird but it works.”
“I’m cautious, but I don’t freak out,” Becker told me as I sat with her and Hescock in an office at the athletic center. “This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do. It helps me cope. Doing something helps me cope. Being part of the solution helps me cope. Am I tired some days? Yeah.”
Who wouldn’t be? The logistics are dizzying. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The margin of error couldn’t be smaller.
“I think we kind of relish the opportunity to be able to come back to some semblance – well, there is no normalcy – but coming in every day and just being around people,” Hescock said. “It’s a massive operation that we’re doing every day. Everybody’s following the public health measures from masks to hand-washing. I think our hands will fall off from the amount of times we’ve used hand sanitizer.”
Parker Sweet knows the feeling.
He’s from nearby Northampton and is taking a blend of undergraduate and graduate level classes as part of his accelerated master’s degree program in public health.
The first time he ever heard of the term coronavirus was early in the pandemic during a class on global health. Soon, it would have a profound impact on one of the state’s largest universities and its campus here with more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
“The university decided to send people home early and that’s when it started to crystalize for me,” the 21-year-old said. “That’s when the community tracing collaborative was getting under way. Honestly, when I started to see e-mail about places where people in public health classes could work, that’s when I knew.
“All right, we’re calling in the cavalry here.”
The response, he said, has been remarkable. Impressive. Students with public health skills were stepping up to help manage a crisis on their own campus.
He’s being tested twice a week. And is glad about it.
“Well, you know, my concentration in my master’s is health policy management,” he told me. “That’s where I see our solutions. Hearts and minds are one thing. We can ask. And we can beg. And we can compel all we want.
“But the bottom line is, I believe, if something is backed up by hard policy and enforceable policy whether at the local, state or federal level that’s where it gets done.”
His education has already taught him this important life lesson:
You can control your own behavior. You can lower your own risk. You can protect others.
And now, he’s practicing what he preaches.
“Well, I try not to touch my face,” he told me here the other day. "That’s a big one. Back in high school, I had a wrestling coach who was a Marine colonel. And he said one of the first things they tell you at boot camp is not to touch your face. Yup. I’ve learned that gradually here.
“Don’t touch your face. Wash your hands. Basic stuff. We’ve heard it for a while, but doing it is a whole other thing.”
Outside, the testing of about 2,000 – the daily average here – was continuing.
The small amount of students on campus and all those waiting back at home are hoping that everybody will ace this test.
All in all, that’s a tough examination of biology.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.