Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
Three days into my spring break, on March 11, my college announced that we were switching to online classes until further notice. I was home visiting my parents in Herndon, Virginia, a three-hour drive from William & Mary, where I’m a senior. I initially felt lucky and prepared; I’d brought home three bags of dirty laundry and most of my textbooks. I had my essentials—I could handle some additional time away from campus. Some of my peers, on the other hand, were traveling with bathing suits and beach gear.
Then on March 19, we got an email from the college’s president telling us that campus would be closed for the rest of the year, effectively canceling the remainder of my college experience, or at least the version that I had expected. Commencement week is still scheduled for May, and our president has made clear she knows how important an in-person graduation is. But who knows what will actually happen.
I am lucky. My parents can support me, while school closures and the loss of part-time jobs left others struggling to afford last-minute flights and scrambling to cover basic needs. After much campaigning by students, the college announced that we will be getting rebates on housing, meal plans, and parking decals, though we have the option to donate this money to the school to be used in an emergency aid fund for others. Students who really needed to were initially allowed to stay on campus, but then the residence halls closed. At the beginning of each semester, we all fill out emergency evacuation plans, thinking they are formalities that we need to complete for legal reasons. But in my time at William & Mary, we have had to use these emergency evacuation plans twice, first for Hurricane Florence in 2018, which kept us off campus for five days, and now for the pandemic.
This is my first experience as an adult with widespread panic and crisis, as it is for many of my college peers. Just when we expected to be taking on the world of cover letters and adulthood, we’re turning to our parents and institutions for answers about what the world will be like in a few months. They don’t know what’s going to happen, either, and we’re too old for them to hide that fact.
I don’t remember 9/11, even though I grew up about 20 minutes from Dulles airport, where hijackers boarded the plane that they flew into the Pentagon. I was 3 years old at the time. My parents made a big pillow fort facing away from the footage on the living room television and let me watch The Little Mermaid to my heart’s content on a little television with a built-in VHS. With the coronavirus, my peers and I can’t be shielded from the news or its consequences. But even more so, as potential carriers of the virus, we cannot ignore our role in it. My friends and I have been talking about the huge responsibility we have of slowing the spread any way we can.
It made sense to close the school. With everyone coming back from spring break, someone was bound to bring the disease back. There is no isolating when you live in a 9-by-14 shoebox with a roommate and the closest thing you have to a kitchen is a Keurig coffee maker. And our student health center, sluggish under normal conditions, is not equipped to handle everyone getting sick at once, nor the staff shortages a highly infectious illness can cause—we learned this week that the medical director now has the coronavirus and is in quarantine. There are people in the community we need to protect: older professors; immunocompromised students; the residents of the town, Williamsburg, 20 percent of whom are over the age of 60. Even now, the county is the epicenter of the disease in Virginia. We would have just made things worse.
As far as our education goes: Online classes started last week, and they are a whole different experience compared with the lively in-person lectures and discussions we were used to. We have been reduced to watching sad professors via webcam, as they combat unstable internet connections (both theirs and ours) and the Zoom videoconferencing interface. There have already been so many times when a student has finished asking what was most likely a well-thought out question, only for the rest of us to inform them that the audio and video were lagging so badly that we couldn’t understand them. We’re supposed to stay on camera for the whole class, to simulate the feeling of being together, but it fills me with a sense of dread, since I know all of my minuscule facial expressions are on display. Many professors have stated that we are all getting A’s, since anything else wouldn’t be fair to the students do not have the right technology to use Zoom’s video feature and must instead call in to our online classes.
Even with the important matter of learning at stake, I can’t help but think of all the senior year social activities we’re missing. I can’t help but think about the Royal Ball, our college’s equivalent of prom. I had planned to bring my old high school prom dress back to school after spring break, but I guess it will just stay in my closet collecting dust. I can’t help but think about my creative writing honors thesis defense, which I was supposed to do in front of my favorite professors. I can’t help but think about the ringing of the Wren Building bell on the last day of classes and the candlelight ceremony with fellow graduating seniors. I can’t help but think about toasting my freshman dorm and being reunited with the first people I ever met on campus. I can’t help but think about Commencement Weekend, which would make four years of all-nighters worth it. But mostly, I can’t help but think about trivia and movie nights with my friends. It was sad enough that we were going off in all different directions once we graduated—but now we don’t even get our last few weeks together.
Though we text, and collaborate on school projects on Zoom, we’re now left to take up solo hobbies: knitting, video games, writing tearful Instagram posts. I have downloaded The Sims 4 so that I can create humans who interact with one another and leave their homes. I am recording videos for the William & Mary Television Club in my bathtub Stephen Colbert–style, and creating a virtual visiting experience of my favorite place in the world, the William & Mary’s 17th-century Wren Building, since I will never again get to give tours there in person. Because I don’t have my friends to watch movies with me, my dad agreed to watch the Netflix teen rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Unlike my friends, he didn’t focus on the good looks of Noah Centineo, and just kept pausing the movie to look at the setting details of Portland, Oregon, where he recently went on a business trip. I know he’s trying.
I think a lot about the Thursday before spring break, when I walked out of class with my best friend. I was determined to get to the dining hall before it got crowded, and not paying attention to my surroundings. I didn’t realize my friend had changed direction to head to her car until she shouted at me, from a distance, “Have a good spring break!” I yelled, “You too!” before walking to the dining hall alone. No big deal at the time—we thought we’d see each other soon. But I wish now that I had hugged her.
Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.