Two weeks ago, much of American life came to a screeching halt in the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Large gatherings including parades and festivals, along with sports tournaments were canceled, and elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities were shut down in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. COVID-19 has infected more than 400,000 people worldwide and appears to be gaining a foothold in the United States. About 50,000 people have tested positive and over 600 people in the country have died from the disease so far. As a result, widespread disruption to citizens’ lives has set in, and those of Fairfield University students have certainly been no exception.
On March 11, the university announced in a letter from Fairfield University President Mark R. Nemec, Ph. D. that it would transition to online instruction starting on March 16 and extending to at least March 29. No students, barring those with special circumstances, would be permitted to return to campus after the end of spring break. Several days later, on March 22, a follow-up email from the president stated that online instruction would continue for the rest of the semester. The letter stated that the administration had hoped students could return to campus at the end of the two week period, but in recent days it had become clear that it would not be possible to bring learning back to campus. This was due in large part to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent order putting in place restrictions on non-essential workplaces and social gatherings extending through at least April 22.
The letter from Fairfield University read, in part, “We have been monitoring national, state and local developments around the clock in order to ensure that every step we take as we continue to operate as a University is undertaken with care, ensuring academic continuity and the health and welfare of all our students, faculty, staff and families.” Students and other members of the school community seeking more information on the university’s response to COVID-19 can go to the Fairfield University website, where an FAQ page has been set up.
The letter also indicated that certain equitable adjustments would be made for room and board on behalf of residential students, and that students would be able to make appointments to collect their belongings from their residence halls in the coming days, while also remaining in compliance with state and local recommendations for social distancing. As a result of the closing, all events, including athletic events, slated to take place during the rest of the semester are canceled. Student services such as advising, accessibility and counseling and psychological services will be made available electronically, as will Masses. The list of all of the events and activities that are to be canceled is quite large. These events include the class of 2022’s “Halfway to the Beach” gathering, the class of 2020’s trip to Mohegan Sun, Stagathon, the Broadway trip to Beetlejuice and the trip to Six Flags.
In the letter sent on March 22, Nemec also addressed the university’s plans in regard to the commencement ceremony scheduled to take place in May. He wrote, “It is with the greatest reluctance that I have to say that based on current regulations set in place by state and federal authorities we will not be able to hold our traditional commencement exercises as scheduled for the third weekend in May.” The president promised, however, that commencement exercises would be held eventually, and that seniors would get the chance to walk in their caps and gowns to receive their diplomas.
This rapidly evolving situation has, unsurprisingly, proven to be very jarring for many of the students who, a few days prior to the first announcement, fully expected to return to campus after break. It has also resulted in a considerable amount of disappointment, fear and anxiety.
“I’m feeling really sad about it,” said one junior who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s a hard pill to swallow. You can’t really put a price on the experiences that we’re missing out on. I feel especially bad for the seniors. As selfish as it may sound, I’m glad I’m not a senior right now.”
Indeed, there was a profound sense of loss felt among the seniors who struggled to accept the idea that, in their final days together, they would not, in fact, be together.
Senior Kat Klima said, “These last couple of weeks were really important in regards to saying goodbye to my friends for now, but also celebrating the last four years I’ve had at Fairfield. It’s upsetting to think that seniors will not get that chance to find closure.”
Justine Spina ‘20, agreed. “I’m a little emotional about missing out on the remainder of the semester. It’s our last chance to be together as a grade and we’ve all worked so hard over these past years to get to these opportunities that we now may miss,” she said. “My senior year and Fairfield journey as a whole would feel more complete if we were able to finish senior year in person.”
Seniors also still worried that, along with not being able to return to campus for the rest of the semester, commencement would be canceled altogether.
“I wouldn’t mind if they rescheduled our graduation to be in June or something, but if they were to take that away from us completely I’d be pretty upset,” Klima acknowledged. “It was the one thing I was looking forward to this year and wanted to really enjoy it.”
Spina also expressed concern, saying, “I know the university is just trying to keep us all safe, but I hope we wouldn’t just completely miss having a graduation ceremony.”
The transition to online learning has also been a difficult one for some, with many insisting that online learning simply isn’t the same as going to class on campus.
Spina said, “I feel like I’m losing that sense of community from a small classroom, which was one of the reasons I chose Fairfield in the first place.”
However, other students didn’t seem to notice or mind the difference.
“The transition to online learning has been smoother than I expected,” said Ruby Francis ‘22. “For some classes, it is similar to going to class in person, but the vibe is obviously different because we aren’t actually seeing each other in person.”
Despite all the challenges that come with a disruption as far-reaching as this one, students seem to be in agreement that the university has made the right decision in transitioning to online classes.
“I feel that the university and other universities are doing the best that they can during this difficult time,” said Klima. “I agree that it’s best for schools to close for the next couple of weeks to stop the spread of COVID-19. By doing this, hopefully it will contain the virus faster and make it safer for everyone to go back to their normal lives.”
As Melyssa Gagliardi ‘22 said, “It would really be too dangerous to have in-class meetings. Although it may not be an ideal circumstance for most people I do think it is a good precaution.”
At the same time, it appears that the gravity of the situation was not fully realized by some of the students. Several days ago, the office of the dean of students sent a letter indicating that it was notified by parents, students and others, that some students were planning to return to campus over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend to attend parties hosted by residents of the Fairfield Beach community. As a result, police would be patrolling the region to serve as a deterrence to anyone considering hosting or attending a party in the neighborhood. The letter stressed the seriousness of the matter and urged students to remain in their personal residences out of concern for their own health and the health of others. Dean of students Will Johnson wrote, “It is our moral and civic responsibility to do our part to protect the health and wellness of our family, our campus as well as the surrounding community.” He also emphasized that although undergraduate students are not at an age to be considered at high-risk for exhibiting severe symptoms of the coronavirus, which so far seems to be much more dangerous for older age groups, it was still possible for them to contract and spread the virus to those in a high-risk group.
At the same time, most students seemed to recognize that they have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable in our society, and were concerned about the virus primarily because they knew that they could spread it to an elderly person or someone with an underlying medical condition.
“I’m not concerned about the virus at all when considering my own health. However, I’m concerned for people who are at a higher risk of being affected,” said Francis.
Spina said, “I’m concerned because there are so many other people to worry about besides just myself. I’m trying to level my concerns by following what the CDC is saying for my own health and for the safety of others.”
Overall, it appeared that students and faculty alike were rising to the challenge that had been placed before them, and coming together as a community to make the best out of an unprecedented situation.
As one junior put it, “What better time is there to show how socially responsible we are? If we can’t leave college saying that we are global citizens, then what was the point of going in the first place?”