By Popchyk Raker
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
Through recent years, college students have been on quite the roller-coaster ride. In the spring semester of 2020, coronavirus arrived and created a rift that will be difficult to soon forget. A lengthy list of colleges was forced to close their doors and send their residents home, changing their learning as they knew it. When it was time for students to return for the next semester, in fall 2020, everything was different.
Classes met online instead of the classroom. Students couldn’t see each other’s faces anymore, obscured by masks required for their safety. In dining halls, they were separated around the table, greater than an arm’s length away. While these were all necessary to keep students and their families healthy, it changed the dynamic of a college education. What was once known as a grand, communal experience diminished to almost nothing.
“Compared to what my parents were telling me about their college experiences, the social climate and social customs are much different in the dorms, and have been especially since COVID,” Niagara University student Becca Mansfield said. Resident students she lives with seem to be a little less social on the whole and sometimes reluctant to interact, she described.
Mansfield’s observation seems to be a common theme across colleges, not just Niagara University, according to a survey conducted by the infohub BestColleges in October of this year. Based on the students they collected data from, 46% reported feeling socially isolated as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, 41% struggled with making friends or meeting with their peers. Perhaps these numbers wouldn’t be so severe if 65% of the same group of students didn’t claim to rely on friends for support. Other relevant data from this study, including other struggles with COVID-19 reported by these students can be found by exploring the study’s findings in depth.
Based on these numbers, it would be reasonable to report a big change in college student social lives and mental health. In recent months, however, colleges have begun to relax their restrictions and bring students as close to “normal” as possible. The big world bounces back, and their little worlds try their best, too.
State universities of New York, for example, relaxed their enforcement of mask mandates, according to the updated guidelines posted on their websites. Instead of being required in all places on campus, masks are now enforced at the discretion of individual universities and their staff. In addition, the mandatory pause of in-person instruction has ended. All students still must be vaccinated unless a student submits a medical or religious exemption request, which are still reviewed at the discretion of the individual university.
For some, an attempted return to normalcy brings a great deal of hope. If COVID-19 was reported to increase feelings of loneliness, its disappearance from the realm of the college campus, whether real or perceived, could signify the opposite. For others, though, relaxing COVID-19 restrictions isn’t the solution to their problems.
“The school didn’t really ease us in,” Niagara University student Nate Eitler said. “I know a lot of people, including myself, are struggling this semester because it feels so different from how it was the last two years. Professors are overcompensating for lost time, and a lot of students are feeling burnt out.” While Eitler commented that he was glad it was safe enough this semester for students to feel more comfortable, he claims it felt rushed. Suddenly coming from masks and distancing to none of those at all was a little jarring. There are positives and negative aspects for these changes, and Eitler saw some of those when observing his peers.
Understandably, many students on college campuses dropped the COVID-19 regulations as soon as they were able, some the same day they were announced. Students on Niagara University’s campus went maskless as soon as possible according to eyewitness accounts in the past spring semester. The college’s website asks that students who choose to remain masked are respected. Mansfield is one of those masked students.
“As much as I know everyone is sick of masks, throughout the pandemic I have really appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to worry about people coughing and sneezing on or around me all the time,” she said lightheartedly. Mansfield also said people were almost always respectful of her decision. She may be among the minority of students who still decide to wear a facial covering, but the only questions she gets about it are of curiosity, not mocking.
Some Niagara University students may believe that restriction relaxation came too soon, but for other universities, it ended even earlier. Canisius College, a campus closer to the City of Buffalo, lifted its mask mandates a semester earlier. Student Joshua Brink described his experience on campus as different.
“I’ve been tutoring for the computer science department and last semester was like pulling teeth to get anybody to come in,” Brink explained, referring to a time when fear of getting sick from the virus was high. “This semester, people have been around more and they’ll stop by to say ‘Hi’ even if they don’t have questions.” He has noticed a big increase in socialization among his peers now that they are more comfortable spending time together. “I’ve noticed a lot more club activities, too,” he said.
The road to change is far from over. Cases of coronavirus have dipped solidly since safety regulations were first introduced on college campuses, but some still remain – approximately nine cases per 100,000 people living in New York state daily, according to recent numbers from its tracking website. More information about the rise and fall of coronavirus cases in this area can be found by examining the statistics more in depth.
As time continues to march, rules will mold to developing situations. College campuses will likely seek to return to a state of normalcy, which may mean more scaling back of additional regulations. One thing is for sure: students will adapt, as they have for the past few years.
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