In 2020, campus life is masked, distant and strictly monitored

BOSTON — It was the fourth day of her freshman year at Northeastern University, and Maddie Harrington still hadn’t met anyone living in her dorm.

Harrington, 18, said people weren’t making much of an effort to say hello in the hallways, because COVID-19 safety protocols restrict freshmen from entering anyone’s dorm room but their own. Worse, she knew that if she found herself caught up in camaraderie and decided to visit someone else’s room, she could be dismissed and sent home, just as 11 other freshmen were after having been found in a hotel-turned-dorm room on Sept. 4. In a show of force, the university kept the students’ tuition — which was more than $36,000 — before the students had even completed their first week of college.

Harrington, who is from Gloucester, Massachusetts, said the traditional ways to meet people on campus, like running into them at dining halls and libraries, have disappeared. Now, to make friends, freshmen must approach peers standing next to them in lines to pick up cafeteria meals. But Harrington said it’s difficult to put herself out there, given that such introductions involve weighing potential health risks.

IMAGE: Maddie Harrington (Ben Kesslen / NBC News)
IMAGE: Maddie Harrington (Ben Kesslen / NBC News)

Students at hundreds of colleges who returned to campus in August and September are grappling with a new normal. College life, 2020 style, is theoretically devoid of roaming free, party-hopping and congregating in the dining hall.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

At Northeastern, home to around 20,000 undergraduates, the administration is gambling on staying open during the pandemic by implementing a complicated hybrid remote and in-person plan, strict social distancing and masking rules, and mandatory testing guidelines that require students to be tested every three days. In other words, student life as it was once known has been sacrificed to the hope of keeping the campus, and the school’s bank accounts, alive.

At Northeastern, classes are offered both in person and online, depending on density restrictions, and students get to choose week to week whether they want to be in class or virtual. Nearby Boston University has cobbled together a similarly complicated hybrid model paired with a testing regimen.

At Harvard University, all instruction this fall is remote, whether students are on campus or off. In July, Berklee College of Music threw up its hands and announced that it would be fully remote for the fall. The only consensus was that there was no perfect solution.

When Boston locked down in mid-March and the Northeastern campus closed, Masako Donahue, 19, then a freshman, went home to Tokyo. She continued to attend online, but waking up at 3, 4 or 5 a.m. for classes because of the time difference quickly made remote study untenable. “There was no doubt I wanted to go back to campus,” she said.

Donahue called the new campus safety measures, like testing every three days and steep consequences for breaking the school’s COVID-19 pledge, “a bit extreme,” but she said she understands why they exist. She feels bad for the 11 dismissed students, who were all supposed to be studying abroad their first semester but instead found themselves housed in a Boston Westin Hotel far from the main campus.

“I think the school suspended them to show others they aren’t being lenient,” she said. It worked. “It scared us, for sure.”

The guidelines meant to keep students on campus, however, are also taking away campus culture, Donahue said. “Our freshman year, we went to frat parties. Yesterday, we had to go to a field.”

Donahue’s friend Maya Osman, a sophomore, decided to opt out of dorm life this year altogether.

“I was supposed to be in a single, which would not be good for my mental health,” she said. “My parents live 20 minutes away, and I’m saving $17,000 by living at home.”

Decisions like Osman’s, to save money and stay home, are in part why schools like Northeastern have invested so much in reopening. It’s a simple calculation: Without students on campus, the university loses money. The pandemic and its subsequent economic turmoil have destabilized higher education budgets, especially when private universities like Northeastern are able to charge students thousands in residency requirements. And the decision affects more than just students, because local economies suffer without students and campus staffers discover that their jobs are in jeopardy.

IMAGE: Gerald Cotten (Matthew Modoono / Northeaster University)
IMAGE: Gerald Cotten (Matthew Modoono / Northeaster University)

Despite saving money on housing costs, Osman still wonders why she is paying more than $55,000 in tuition and fees when all of her classes happen to be online and she has to make an appointment to use the library.

In person, the lengths Northeastern is going to to stay open have turned the campus into a pale shadow of what campus once was. On weekday afternoons, long lines now stretch around the campus as students, staff members and faculty members wait to enter Cabot Cage, a gymnasium-turned-large-scale testing facility.

In addition to the mandatory student testing requirements, faculty and staff members and contract workers who visit the Boston campus more than once a week are tested twice a week. Under the new rules, students can’t take even sips of water during class. Entire floors of books have been removed from the library to make way for single-person carrels spaced apart. Masks must be kept on outdoors, even when people are socially distanced.

The school set up a hotline where students can report their peers for breaking social distancing guidelines.

In August, the school sent letters threatening to rescind admission to 115 incoming freshmen who responded to an Instagram poll saying they would party on campus this fall. The school set up a hotline where students can report their peers for breaking social distancing guidelines. On campus, students mostly walk around solo, with earbuds, visibly nervous. Indoors, they eat alone, at tables set for one and purposefully too far apart to really hold conversations. Clubs are online. The campus center is mostly empty.

Osman described the COVID-19 protocols as “a little bit prison-esque.”

Jill Jacobson, 21, a graduate student from North Carolina who got her undergraduate degree at Northeastern, worries about the long-term sociological impact of the new guidelines.

“The university has a massive infrastructure to report rule-breaking,” she said. “That sort of whistleblowing and surveillance creates tension, hostility and distrust. We spend a year hiding, and I’m not sure it will be easy to come back from that.”

IMAGE: Jill Jacobson (Ben Kesslen / NBC News)
IMAGE: Jill Jacobson (Ben Kesslen / NBC News)

Jacobson’s fears are backed up by experts, who say shaming and blaming won’t be effective tools to get college students to stay safe and that they could make things worse.

Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, previously told NBC News that it is “unconscionable” for administrators to blame students for the “failure of their own public health plan.”

“They’re not going to tell anyone that they attended a party, because they’ve been told they’re going to be thrown off campus,” she said, adding that colleges should, instead, focus on harm-reduction models.

The university seems to be “practicing wishful thinking,” Jacobson said, adding that she has been taking classes in person on campus nonetheless, because her education can’t be replicated online.

Northeastern insisted that it wants to “create a culture of care” that helps the entire community stay healthy.

“We have encouraged people to call and report things. We have also encouraged people to engage someone walking down the street who is not wearing their mask properly,” said Madeleine Estabrook, the school’s senior vice chancellor for student affairs.

Estabrook said she isn’t focused on what students can’t do but instead on helping them find new and safe ways to get to know one another and build a community, pointing to a socially distanced circle of students on their laptops, all playing cards together virtually.

Northeastern said that as of Thursday, it had only 41 positive cases in 72,819 tests and that its seven-day average positive test rate was a low 0.06 percent.

IMAGE: Cabot Testing Center at Northeastern University (Ruby Wallau / Northeastern University)
IMAGE: Cabot Testing Center at Northeastern University (Ruby Wallau / Northeastern University)

Still, the school took some heat from the student body, faculty members and the community. At a City Council meeting in July, UNITE HERE Local 26, a union that represents hospitality workers in Boston, raised concerns that the school’s plan to house students in hotels would create additional risk for hotel staffers, according to the school’s independent student newspaper, The Huntington News.

More criticism came when a now-removed webpage that appeared in August promised a coming book by university President Joseph Aoun titled “We Will Remain: A University, a Global Crisis, and Lessons of Leadership.” Students lambasted the book’s premise online, saying the school was prioritizing brand building over their safety.

In a description, the book said Aoun’s leadership “offers lessons for every organization” and framed his management of the crisis as complete and finished. MIT Press, the book’s publisher, said a “data error” was responsible for publication of a proposal for a book that has since been killed. A Northeastern spokesperson said plainly that there is “no book,” but some students still wonder whose interests are at the heart of the school’s plan.

In line to get a mandated COVID-19 test, Damla Cehreli, a graduate student from California who uses they/them pronouns, said they have no interest in being on campus. Cehreli is skeptical of the school’s decision to offer in-person instruction, especially because, as an urban campus, it’s not in anything near a closed environment, the way some smaller, rural schools might be.

Cehreli, 23, comes to campus only to get the mandatory COVID-19 tests and then leaves immediately.

Like many Northeastern students, they feel a mix of sympathy, pity and understanding about the decision to dismiss 11 students who were trying to get to know one another.

“If the school encouraged everyone to go remote,” Cehreli said, “this wouldn’t have happened.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 13, 2020, 7:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated how often students are Northeastern University are tested for the coronavirus, They are tested every three days, not every two weeks.

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