In these early days of fall, in the throes of a global pandemic, the most prized real estate on a college campus is a bench and a patch of grass to call your own.
Courtney Nicholson, a first year student at Boston University, hit the jackpot on a recent morning, finding sweet escape from the creeping claustrophobia of her dorm room, in a pocket park off Commonwealth Avenue. Settled on an iron bench, mask on and laptop open, she logged into her virtual writing classroom. Around her, generously spaced apart were two dozen other students with the same idea, sitting alone or in pairs.
College students used to travel in packs. But in this strange, subdued semester, they often keep a wary distance, robbing campus life of many spontaneous connections that throw strangers together and sometimes lead to lifelong friendships.
“It’s kind of hard adjusting,” said Nicholson, 18, a biochemistry major from New Jersey. “It’s definitely different. It’s hard to find places outside of your room. It’s hard to hang out.”
Halfway through her remote class, Nicholson discovered one friend was sitting in his dorm room in a residential tower a block away. He messaged to say hello. In what passes for a jolt of human connection these days, Nicholson waved to him from afar.
The pandemic has profoundly altered the college experience for students. As colleges in the Boston area settle into their first full COVID semester, students have been forced to learn new rules (gathering with more than 10 people is a sure way to get disciplined and even kicked out) and develop tedious new routines (scheduling a coronavirus test every few days).
With many colleges struggling to contain coronavirus outbreaks, administrators are trying to strike a difficult balance between keeping students safe and fostering an environment where they can make unforced and meaningful connections with new acquaintances, said Ann Coyne, the vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Suffolk University in Boston.
“The day of the buffet and the ice cream social where you stick your hand in the ice cream bin are long gone,” Coyne said.
For Boston, where the end of summer typically brings a massive return of students, another new reality has set in. The students are back, but their ranks are much thinner.
With many staff and faculty still working remotely, snagging street parking next to a college campus is a breeze. And coffee shops and restaurants that were once packed with students and professors and abuzz with their conversations are now eerily quiet.
“It’s lonely,” said Mario Srithip, a manager at Spicies, a Thai restaurant off Harvard Square. The restaurant, which has been around for about two decades, closed at the height of the pandemic and reopened in early September to coincide with the start of the semester. But Harvard brought back only first-year students for the fall semester and professors are teaching remotely.
Before the pandemic, customers lined up outside for a lunch or dinner table. Now, only about 10 percent of customers have returned, Srithip said.
On a recent Thursday night, a lone couple dined in a back booth at Spicies, two people picked up to-go orders, and a man popped in for change to feed the parking meters. A few restaurants, including a tavern and a taqueria, that offer outdoor dining continue to draw crowds of young people, but at more places the workers outnumber the customers. Traffic picks up on the weekends, retailers and restaurateurs said, but is still well short of pre-pandemic levels.
“When you see any people together who are clearly students, it makes you feel like some level of normalcy has returned to Harvard Square,” said Stephanie Proia, an assistant manager at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. But she adds that she hasn’t seen as many upper-class students or faculty.
Colleges that have brought students back promised them some semblance of the traditional campus experience and a chance to connect not just with their professors but their peers. Some are offering in-person classes, hosting virtual game nights and meet-ups, and adding more outdoor seating so students can safely gather.
But the signs of a changed world are everywhere, quite literally. At BU, posters read “Don’t go viral: physically distance” and red arrows direct students along one-way walkways. Northeastern University’s walls and stairs are painted with signs urging students to “Protect the Pack” and mask up. At Harvard University, the gates to the campus close at before dark, shutting out all but the first-year students who were allowed to return to campus.
Colleges have transformed their physical spaces to protect students and keep the virus at bay. In dorms, furniture has been removed from common rooms to discourage larger gatherings. At libraries, the stacks are blocked off with tape, like a crime scene. Students must make appointments to use the gym, most clubs are meeting online, and even chapel services are on hold.
Emerson College has converted the Paramount, Cutler Majestic, and Colonial theaters into classrooms so that large lectures can be appropriately distanced. A carpeted ballroom that once hosted concerts and celebrations in BU’s student union is now lined with nearly 100 desk-chairs all set 6 feet apart, forcing one female professor to wear flats instead of heels so she can comfortably roam the massive classroom while she teaches.
Universities say they recognize that students are hungry for social interaction and opportunities outside of their dorm rooms. Suffolk hosted an in-person mini-golf game in one of its buildings recently and is trying to think of more weekend programs to offer students both virtual and in-person, Coyne said.
But some students said that while they appreciate the universities hosting clubs and events online, it can be difficult to participate, especially if many of their classes are also taught remotely.
“I don’t want to spend more time in the virtual world,” said Hayden Wolff, a Tufts senior who is studying computer engineering. With all his classes online, he listens to podcasts instead of watching television to avoid more screen time.
His final year at Tufts is one he never imagined. Wolff lives in an apartment in Somerville near campus with three classmates. To be safe, his group of friends has been limited to his housemates, whom he can see at times without masks. But that has led to its own set of tensions, Wolff said, as the housemates try to navigate issues such as whether other friends and partners can visit, how clean to keep the space when everyone is there all the time, and how to maintain respectable noise levels when everybody’s online class schedule varies.
“Everyone is on edge and everyone is tense,” Wolff said.
Wolff said he has learned to adjust. He takes short walks and stretches outside during breaks in his online classes and because Tufts now requires reservations to use the campus gym, he has turned his back patio into a makeshift workout space with barbells and a bench.
But Wolff also worries that when temperatures drop in Boston, so will his options to leave his room and his apartment.
Universities are starting to make plans for the upcoming winter and the spring semester and early indications are that it will be a mirror of the fall.
“I worry about the winter all the time,” said Jolie Mitchell-Germain, a sophomore at Emerson College. Last year, Mitchell-Germain said there were parties to go to at Emerson and other nearby colleges on the weekends or affordable student art and dance shows and sporting events to meet people. With those gone, many people have just immersed themselves in their studies.
“Nowadays, everyone is working, working, working,” she said. “There’s no outlet to let loose and vibe with other people.”
If she wants to leave her dorm room and go out to dinner or do something fun in Boston, it costs money, and she is trying to budget carefully, Mitchell-Germain said.
She and her friends sometimes rent bikes and travel around the city or go to nearby Boston Common and play with dogs in the park, she said.
Mitchell-Germain doesn’t regret coming to campus this fall. She is staying on track with her classes, which are both in-person and online. And it is better than staying with her family in a crowded home in New York City, which helps her take the long view.
“I am trying to come to terms with that we’ll be in the situation for a while,” she said. “That all these regulations and limitations are going to be like this for a while.”