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Virginia college students reflect on COVID-19 anniversary

By Anya Sczerzenie

Capital News Service

Shayla McCartney remembers where she was when the pandemic closed her university.

“It was spring break,” said McCartney, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “I was at home with my mom, we were marathoning ‘Gilmore Girls.’ We got the email that said, ‘Don’t come back.’”

McCartney said she was upset at the news.

“I had plans,” she said. “I had people I wanted to see.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of more than half a million Virginia college students, including McCartney’s.

“My mental health plummeted, and I didn’t get to see friends,” McCartney said. “I had to come to terms with how to be alone this year.”

The pandemic has impacted lives globally. For young people around the world, the coronavirus disrupted their education, jobs and social lives. Many universities and K-12 schools switched to online learning. Some students left campuses to live with their families, while others stayed in on-campus or off-campus housing while taking classes online.

Virginia’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 7— with the first death announced a week later on March 14.

VCU junior Yonathan Mesfun was at his student apartment in Richmond when he received the announcement spring break was extended and in-person classes would move online.

“I got everything, packed up and headed home,” said Mesfun, who lives in Northern Virginia. “I was just thinking about when it would end, honestly.”

VCU biology major Sellas Habte-Mariam was picking her sister up from track practice when she saw the email that announced the school’s closure.

“My dad had been scaring me the whole time,” Habte-Mariam said. “He said, ‘You’re not going back to school.’”

The sophomore said that she spent much of the quarantine period re-reading books. “My favorite is ‘Little Women,’” she said.

Habte-Mariam said adjusting to online classes was difficult.

A survey of more than 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

College students in the southeastern U.S. reported higher levels of mood disorder symptoms, stress and alcohol use during the spring 2020 semester, according to another survey. These returned to pre-pandemic levels by the fall.

Some students faced unique challenges during the pandemic — including international students attending colleges away from their home country.

Sailor Miao, a student from China, returned to his home country and started his first semester at the College of William & Mary online. Miao said the 12-hour time difference made attending class difficult.

“I had to wake up at 2 a.m. for class,” Miao said. “I decided to return to the U.S. because I couldn’t complete another semester online.”

Miao, a political science and government major, said the pandemic allowed him to finally spend time with his parents.

“I’d been living with a host family for four years,” said Miao, who attended high school in Alabama through an international exchange program. “When I went back to China, I missed graduation. I was the valedictorian of my class, so it was hard.”

Adjusting to online learning was also difficult for students in hands-on majors such as arts and lab sciences.

George Mason University sophomore Chandler Herr recalled being upset when his school announced it would be closing. He went back to GMU to pack his belongings then returned home.

“I was disappointed because I was supposed to work on film sets when I got back,” Herr said. “I was wondering how I could even get a grade for some of my hands-on film classes.”

Herr, a film and video studies major, said he and his professors “mostly gave up” during that spring semester. Remote learning meant the events and hands-on projects “couldn’t be done,” he said.

“We were just flabbergasted to have it all happen,” Herr said. “It was surreal.”

Students have lost jobs, internships and job offers. Many say they expect to earn less at age 35 than previously anticipated, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Almost half of the students SCHEV surveyed reported concern over employment.

One recent win for college students will be their first stimulus check. University students whose parents claim them as dependents did not receive stimulus checks during the early months of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus package which was signed into law on March 11, will allow college students who are dependents to claim the upcoming $1,400 stimulus checks.

The number of daily vaccines given out in Virginia has risen since December. The state has administered almost 2 million first doses of the vaccine and almost 1 million of the second dose. College students usually fall into the lowest-priority group, and many won’t be vaccinated until late spring or early summer. Cases of COVID-19 in Virginia have been trending downward since early February.

Many campuses around the state have reopened with coronavirus testing and new procedures in place.

Kim Case is the director for faculty success at VCU. She oversees the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence which promotes faculty development. The CTLE pivoted quickly last spring and helped prepare instructors to launch remote classes. Case said she sees hope on the horizon after a year of helping colleagues navigate virtual learning.

“We were all pretty stressed in March 2020 and had no idea how long we would be apart,” she said. “At this point, I am much more hopeful about the future in terms of getting back on campus.”

Shayla McCartney said this year was disorienting, but it helped her grow.

“I’m only just now feeling kind of comfortable,” McCartney said. “I’ve grown up a little bit. I do my schoolwork a lot more.”