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One Year Later: Chaos and Closure in the Face of COVID-19

When Boston College students and faculty returned to campus on March 8, 2020, few could have predicted that campus would be empty again in a week’s time. One year later, students and administrators are still reflecting on and processing those final five days on the Heights—the decisions that were made, the chaos that ensued, and the lasting effects that being sent home had on the community.

Sounding the Alarm 

Philip Landrigan, director of BC’s Global Public Health Program and Global Observatory on Pollution, said that when the first cases of COVID-19 began appearing in the opening weeks of 2020, he had little sense of the severity of what was to come.

“I wasn’t that clear from the beginning, partly because the initial reports were kind of sketchy, and partly just a normal human reaction that it was far away, you know, it wasn’t here,” Landrigan said. “Then during the months of January and February, as the number of deaths started to mount up, it was becoming increasingly clear to all of us that this was a very, very serious threat and that we needed to buckle down.”

Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley said that every administrator was keeping an eye on COVID-19 throughout January and February. He recalled a meeting with the Board of Trustees during which one board member asked him what was keeping him up at night. 

“It was Friday, February 7 and late the previous night, the doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, had passed away,” Quigley said. “The 30-something doctor … was one of the first to sound the alarm. And I’m not usually an alarmist, but I said that was something that had me a little bit worried.”

Quigley said that there were several meetings entering into Spring Break about COVID-19, but no one yet understood the gravity of the situation.

Landrigan said that he briefed top administrators about COVID-19 in a meeting on Feb. 28, the final Friday before BC’s Spring Break.

“None of us in the room at that point were yet ready to close the place down,” Landrigan said. “I gave my best advice as to what steps BC should take … then over the next 10 or 11 days it became increasingly clear that this was a much much more dangerous situation than we had realized.” 

Stanton Wortham, dean of the Lynch School of Education, said that there was some planning to move classes online before Spring Break even began. Informational Technology Services had begun to ramp up Zoom licenses, and there was communication from department chairs to faculty urging them to begin planning for the possibility of the transition to remote learning, he said.

“So there was some preparation going on even before Spring Break, thinking, in case it happens, we’re going to have to do X, Y, and Z,” Wortham said.

March 8

On Sunday, March 8, BC’s campus came alive as students returned from various Spring Break destinations. Natalie Dryja, MCAS ’22, had just returned from a week-long trip to Miami, Fla. with her roommates.

While in Florida, Dryja remembers hearing more and more reports of COVID-19 cases across the United States, she said.

“When we were there, like everyone was just kind of joking about COVID, but we didn’t think it was actually a real thing here … which is crazy to think about now,” Dryja said. 

Nathaniel Van Ness, CSOM ’23, remembered that his friends were making jokes that people should be careful around a student they knew who came back from a Spring Break trip in Italy. 

Executive Vice President Michael Lochhead said that one of the challenges BC faced was the early timing of its Spring Break, which began on March 2, relative to other universities. Lochhead said that in the week of Feb. 28 to March 7, the situation began to escalate.

“We were moving in the direction of remote instruction, [and] we didn’t have the advantage of a Spring Break to kind of get everybody up to speed,” Lochhead said. “We were coming back from Spring Break as everything was changing, and so that forced us to move more quickly.”

There was a lot of chaos during those first few days in March in terms of advice coming from the local, state, and federal government, Quigley said.

“There was so much cross-cutting and confusing guidance coming from elected officials that it made the jobs of folks in institutions, not just in higher education but across the country, more difficult than I think it needed to be,” Quigley said. 

Areas surrounding BC also began to grapple with the emergence of the virus in early March. 

By March 8, Newton North High School students and teachers had completed their first of two weeks quarantining at home after returning from Italy, per the request of Newton health officials. On the same day, the first Newton resident received a “presumptive positive” test. 

March 9

On Monday, classes resumed. Wortham said that upon BC’s return from Spring Break, there was a growing awareness across higher education that the situation was getting serious. 

“But … I was in the office that next Monday,” Wortham said. “It was like a domino effect, you know … it just became clear that every university was going to do it, and the public health situation was such that [University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.,] had to do it.”

Adrienne Nussbaum, the director for the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), said that in the days leading up to the announcement, her office watched anxiously as other schools in Boston moved to online instruction.

“Our international students and their parents were contacting us, and then I was contacting people at BC,” Nussbaum said. “And I kept being told, ‘The decision’s being made, you’ll hear soon.’”

March 10

Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts, and Harvard University announced that all of its courses would move to remote instruction. 

Despite universities shifting toward remote learning, Dryja said that many BC students held onto hope that BC would not do the same.

“I wasn’t sure if BC would actually, like, send us home,” Dryja said. “I feel like they have a tendency to kind of … be like, ‘Oh, we’re different. We’re gonna stay here,’ so it definitely felt weird and kind of concerning that other people were actually going home.” 

Later in the day, an email circulated that fueled rumors that BC would be moving classes online the next day. Panic spread across campus as students grappled with the possibility of being sent home for the rest of the semester. Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn responded with a statement that BC had not made the decision to move all courses online.

Peter Kim, former Heights editor and BC ’20, described an increasing sense of worry on campus as rumors spread. After hearing that other universities in the Boston area shut down that evening, Kim said, the residents of his neighboring Mod predicted that March 10 would be their last day of normal school.

March 11

By Wednesday, some professors had already altered their courses because of COVID-19 concerns, and the Undergraduate Government of Boston College called for suspension of in-person classes due to health risks.

“By Wednesday morning, I think we kind of knew what was going on,” Kim said. 

In the days since Landrigan briefed administrators about COVID-19, the numbers had moved from the disturbing to the alarming, he said. 

Quigley said that he, Lochhead, Leahy, and several other vice presidents and University leaders spent the final few days in and out of conversations about what BC was going to do.

“[We] were in conversation among ourselves, but also with elected officials elsewhere and in touch with other higher ed leaders trying to figure out what the right move was going to be,” Quigley said. “So by Wednesday, the 11th, we were prepared to make our announcement.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, outpourings of emotion overtook campus as students received an email from Leahy announcing that they would be required to evacuate residence halls by March 15. 

When the email went out, Dryja was in the library working on a paper due that night, she said. While she was sitting there, students began receiving Leahy’s email at slightly staggered times. 

“The email … was like coming out in waves,” she said. “People were getting up and leaving, because they were just like, not caring about their homework anymore, and I hadn’t gotten the email yet, and I was like, super confused.”

When Dryja eventually received the email, she said, her first reaction was to be with her friends.

On her walk back to Walsh Hall, Mod residents had already flocked into their yards, she said.

“I remember walking back into Walsh, [and] everyone was kind of like, out in the hallways,” Dryja said. “I had to walk through the Mods too from the library, and it was just like, a full on party in the Mods.”

Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation Tom Mogan said in an email to The Heights that he went to the Mods that evening to monitor what was happening and to support the seniors.

“We knew the group that would be most impacted was seniors and we tried to be present to this group each night in the Mods to help support them through what we knew would be a difficult time,” Mogan wrote. 

Kim, a former Mod resident, said that he and his roommates walked into their neighbors’ Mod immediately after hearing the news.

“We all got into a big group hug, and we started crying,” he said. “Two months is not that significant of a period of time, but to have the last two months [of college] stolen from you means quite a bit more.”

Van Ness said he awoke from a nap at around 6 p.m. to the sounds of commotion and screaming on his floor in Williams Hall as Leahy’s email appeared in students’ inboxes.

“I remember being in my friend’s dorm on Upper because I live in Williams and people just going to Mac and like, carrying like cases of drinks and food, spending all their meal plan money,” Van Ness said.

By the time he tried to go join in the commotion, all of the shelves and fridges were empty, he said.

Amid the chaos of receiving the news, Kim said that he and his friends processed their emotions at different times.

“Whether it was in the first 15 minutes after we got sent home, or like three hours later when we were all hanging out with our friends, you just [saw] so many people kind of hit that realization, and it [was] sad to watch people go through that,” Kim said.

For many, the final few days on campus were as packed with celebration as they were with emotional lows.

“We realized what was going on, and there was just this outpouring of sorrow among everyone I was around at the time,” Kim said. “It’s actually pretty crazy to reflect on how quickly the atmosphere turned from like joking around to just total grief.”

Mogan said that he and Executive Director of the Pine Manor Institute for Student Success Joy Moore were in the middle of a dinner with members of the Asian Caucus in Maloney Hall when the news broke.

“We knew the email was going to come out shortly and decided to proceed with the dinner so we could be there to support the students and answer any questions they may have,” Mogan said. “The email came out during our dinner and the students were obviously upset and we tried to comfort them.”

Administrators, though, had to put emotions on the backburner to address logistical challenges that came with transitioning to online learning—connecting faculty to new platforms and preparing students for the shift. 

Wortham said he immediately began to wonder how to address the challenges that came with remote learning. Classes had to be moved online, faculty connected to new platforms, and computers loaned to graduate students, among other tasks, he said. 

“The logistical challenges were so big that there wasn’t really a lot of time for emotional reaction,” Wortham said. “It was just like sprinting from the time it happened.”

March 12

On Thursday, BC notified all students studying abroad that they had to return home to the U.S.

Kristen Bahr, former Heights editor and CSOM ’21, was studying at Comillas University in Madrid, Spain at the time. She said that in the weeks leading up to being sent home, everything seemed relatively normal.

The only difference, she said, was that there was hand sanitizer everywhere, which was unusual for Spain. No one was wearing masks yet, but there was definitely a focus on washing hands and using hand sanitizer, Bahr said. 

Bahr recalled having the feeling that she was going to be sent home a few days prior to the announcement, but she didn’t know when the news would be released. Even with the expectation, receiving the news was heartbreaking, she said. 

“I kind of knew that it was coming, but it was in the morning. … I had gone out to get a cup of coffee, and like it was a really nice day, so I was excited,” Bahr said. “I was like, ‘It’s a nice day … It’s gonna be a good last day here.’ Then all of a sudden I got the email, and I was like, ‘I have to go pack now.’”

After former U.S. President Donald Trump announced that a travel ban on European countries was going to be put in place, there was a scramble to return to the U.S. as quickly as possible, Bahr said. She was able to fly home on March 13, but her ticket was expensive, she said. 

For many students on BC’s campus, the four-day window to move out of their residence halls also presented challenges. Many low-income students faced an added layer of stress and uncertainty about transportation and where they would go after leaving campus. Issues like homelessness, unstable living situations, and expensive travel prices made leaving campus especially difficult for some students.

For Van Ness, who is from San Antonio, Texas, there were no direct flights home, meaning that flying would have been extremely costly. His parents ended up making the 30-hour drive from San Antonio to Boston, but there was a two-day period during the last week when he had no idea how he would return home, he said.

“I hated the short notice,” Van Ness said. “We have to vacate in a few days like, what about all the international students? What about like the people who live really far away? What about the students who struggle financially?”

All international students are required by U.S. law to get a signature on an immigration form in order to come back into the U.S., Nussbaum said, and at that point in time, students didn’t know how long they would be out of the country.

“Our office was insane,” Nussbaum said. “We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of international students pouring into our office to get immigration forms signed, so we were just in crisis, chaotic mode.”

Also on March 12, the ACC suspended all athletic-related activities and the NCAA canceled all post-season tournaments. For BC athletes, the suspension of on-campus activities meant the cancelation of the remainder of their seasons.

Lexi McNeil, MCAS ’23, was only weeks away from the start of her season when BC moved online. McNeil, a track and field athlete, was in the middle of pre-season training for her first meet when it was called off due to COVID-19.

Although BC canceled classes, there was still uncertainty about whether athletes would be allowed to remain on campus to finish their seasons, she said. 

“We were also getting so much new information every day so throughout the whole process, it was just a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “I was a little bit surprised once the season was actually canceled, but I think a lot of us at that point were expecting it.”

Before returning home, the track and field team said goodbye to the seniors in their locker room, McNeil said. 

“We decorated [the locker room] with streamers [and] balloons and then turned off the lights and had them come in the locker room, and it was just a lot of fun,” she said. “It wasn’t enough, but it was nice, at least to have one last time with our seniors and get a proper sendoff, because they definitely got robbed the most out of everyone.”

March 13

As students processed their semester being cut short, there was an uptick in vandalism across campus. Between 7 a.m. on March 11 and 7 a.m. on March 16, there were a total of 63 incidents reported by the BC Police Department.

Numerous reports included malicious destruction of property over $1,200—including one at Gasson Hall, where two stained glass windows were broken. 

“I remember hearing about it because I feel like most of it was … on Lower Campus or something like that, or on Middle Campus,” Van Ness said. “I was like, ‘How stupid are you to do that?’” 

Landrigan said that those final three or four days of craziness at BC were inevitable.

“Given the pluck of emotion that was released by the event, even though I know that some of the events got a little bit out of control, it’s the way humans behave when they’re confronted by shock and grief and pain,” Landrigan said. 

Quigley said that a smart decision BC made was requiring students to move their belongings out of their residence halls by March 15.

“Which was difficult, painful, but in the end the right decision,” Quigley said. “There are a number of schools that allowed students to leave their stuff in the dorms, and that was a lingering sore point on many campuses around the country through the rest of the spring and into the summer.” 

The move-out process created a sense of commotion and chaos on campus. As Dryja and her roommates packed up their eight-man suite and shoved their belongings into vacuum bags, they felt an overwhelming sense of not being ready to leave and also not knowing what the future would hold, she said.

“I feel like everyone was like, just really trying to take it all in because I felt like it would be the last time we would ever see each other,” she said. 

March 14

During those final days—which Van Ness described as “chaotic, hell on Earth, but euphoric”—many students took the opportunity to say goodbye to their favorite places. 

Dryja and her roommates frequented Mod parties and popular off-campus spots like Osaka, she said.

“It honestly was just … a super fun time with all my friends those few days, which, looking back on it, does seem kind of weird,” Dryja said. “They were sending us home for a pandemic, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, let’s all go out, go to the Mods,’ and like, going out doesn’t seem the safest, but it was very fun and also really sad.”

On one of their last nights, Dryja and her roommates pulled an all-nighter and watched the sunrise over the Reservoir, a tradition that seniors normally partake in during Senior Week, but that they felt may not even happen for them due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, she said. 

“We were like, ‘Oh, it’s like senior sunrise … [but] who knows when we’ll ever be back,’ which was a bit much, but it was a lot of fun,” she said. “There was a lot of sentiment of like, just sad to be going home but also happy to be with each other.”

For Van Ness, the majority of those final nights were spent with his international friends, many of whom he still has not seen since because they are currently attending BC from their home countries. 

“My best memory was hanging out with my international friends before they left because one had to go to Brazil, one had to go to the UK, one had to go to Russia,” Van Ness said. “We didn’t know when the next time was when we’re going to see each other, so it was nice hanging out with them for a few days.” 

For those in the class of 2020, they knew with certainty that the last days on campus were their final chances to experience hallmarks of senior year that they would now be missing.

“We wanted to make the last week, [or] five days, of our [college] careers as similar to the last five days of school that any other class would [have],” Kim said.

On Wednesday, Kim and his roommates invited as many friends as they could to their Mod to share their collective grief about losing the last two months of their senior year, he said.

The last days on campus were also packed with traditions like Mod weddings, senior sunrise, and taking graduation pictures in front of Gasson, Kim said.

“It felt like a large tailgate … you just [walked] around and there would be so many things going on, like all the time,” he said. “It would be a [Mod] wedding, there’d be people having a barbecue, there’d be people doing whatever, hanging out with their friends, just drinking. There [was] just, like, organized chaos.”

He recalled the sense of unity felt by seniors, who bonded over their shared loss.

“When you have the last two months of your senior years taken away, it just created this intangible kind of bond,” Kim said.

Whatever wild excursions or outpourings of frustration and sadness students experienced during those last few days, at the end of most nights, they were surrounded by those at BC that they valued the most, Kim said.

“A lot of it [was] just spending time with the people who you have grown to care about the most at BC and making sure that you can take in all the things that you were supposed to have in as good a form as you can,” he said. 

Susan Gennaro, dean of the Connell School of Nursing, said that she has a responsibility to feel the losses that her students have faced as a result of the pandemic, such as being unable to experience Commencement and other traditional senior celebrations.

“Somebody told me a long time ago that functional families celebrate, and I think that’s really true,” Gennaro said. “Graduation is a big thing. Senior week is a big thing. All those kinds of things are important because it’s part of what we look forward to. You know, the pictures we take of who was there with you—whether you ever see them again or not—they’re good things.”

March 15

The majority of BC students returned to their homes by the University’s deadline, but approximately 500 students remained on campus afterward. These students were moved to Upper Campus where they completed the rest of the school year remotely.

International students and students from vulnerable backgrounds without a safe place to return to were the priority during this time, Lochhead said.

Moore sent an email to the student body allowing students with valid reasons—including serious personal reasons and travel restrictions—to stay on campus.

Tingwei Hu, an international student from China and MCAS ’23, remained on campus after the March 15 residence hall closure because China’s travel policies at the time made buying a plane ticket difficult, he said.

“I think [the BC administration] reacted to the situation relatively quickly and ResLife was reliable when it was needed,” he said. 

During these early weeks of the pandemic, Lochhead said that BC lacked clear-cut guidelines for handling COVID-19. 

As new CDC guidelines emerged, BC’s essential workers were on the frontlines of implementing them. BC Dining consolidated to McElroy Commons, installed contactless payment systems, and trained dining staff to strictly enforce social distancing policies. 

“They just took all of the policies and everything really seriously,” Mary Brooks, Lynch ’22, who stayed on campus through the semester as a resident assistant said. “Every day, there’d be changes.”

Hu said that with these policies in place, he felt safe staying on campus. Students were allowed to leave their dorms for recreational purposes but were advised against having guests in their rooms. Although Hu felt safe overall, he said that some areas could have been improved.

“There could’ve been better ways of going about things, like utilizing a residential hall that does not have an entire floor … sharing the same bathroom space,” Hu said in an email to The Heights. “But then again, it was cleaned and disinfected regularly, so how much risk was really there?”

As health officials gained more knowledge about COVID-19, BC gradually made its policies for on-campus students stricter, Hu said.

Though most of his friends also stayed on campus, he said, the campus felt worlds away from the normal BC experience.

“It was different without all the students you see everyday,” Hu said. “Suddenly, you don’t see them anymore. … It still felt like BC, but it just, it just lacked that kind of vibrance to it.”

Adapting to the New Reality 

Quigley said that the administration’s first concern after many students were moved out was how to transition BC to remote learning.

“In this case I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got around seven days to go fully remote in the middle of a global pandemic,’” Quigley said. “And so all of a sudden all of our efforts were directed to what do we need to do, where are the areas of concern, how are we going to make sure that people have the right level of support.”

Gennaro said that one of her first concerns when BC announced that it was moving to remote learning was how senior nursing students would fulfill their required in-person patient care hours to graduate.

“That was a lot of working within systems,” Gennaro said. “Because even within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, they weren’t working. They were elsewhere. … It’s not easy to figure out how you communicate when the world has stopped.”

Wortham said that another challenge was figuring out if Lynch students could be licensed without in-person learning.

“There was a huge question of if the schools were also going virtual, would it count if the student teacher was participating in a Zoom session or would it not count because it wasn’t in person,” Wortham said. “And nobody knew, you know, the state of Massachusetts hadn’t decided yet what it was going to do.”

When classes resumed on March 19, most students logged onto Zoom classes from their homes. For Dryja, this transition back to classes was difficult given the uncertain state of the world, she said.

“I feel like at first when I got back home, I was like, ‘Okay, no classes, no nothing … my life is like on hold,’” she said.

During this period of remote learning, Dryja said she learned to adapt to the pandemic. This lesson proved useful when, in early May, she received news that her internship that was supposed to provide her with housing in Connecticut was also going remote.

Ali Bane Hammond, the director of First Year Experience and Orientation, said that the FYE office had to immediately start planning how orientation would look for the incoming freshmen. By early April, they knew they were going to need to shift to a hybrid model of the program.

“In a period of about six weeks, and in collaboration with wonderful colleagues from across the University, we revamped the entire program  –from the orientation registration process to orientation leader training to the particulars of delivering content to and creating community among the Class of 2024 and their families,” she wrote.

Emerson DeBasio, former Heights editor and MCAS ’21, was hired as an orientation leader for last summer during the same week students were sent home. The hardest part of the transition to virtual orientation, she said, was not knowing what to expect.

“It definitely was a little bit of a transition,” DeBasio said. “First Year Experience made it very clear to all of us that they were trying to preserve the original kind of orientation experience as much as they could in a safe way, and we went through a lot of training and a lot of strategizing … to find a way to preserve that experience for freshmen coming in.”

Perspective From the Experience 

One year later, life has still not returned to normal. Instead, BC has adapted to a “new normal” defined by social distancing, mask wearing, and weekly COVID-19 testing. 

Initially, many believed that COVID-19 would entail only a few weeks of lockdown. Bahr recalled that when she returned home from abroad, reality gradually set in that this wasn’t just going to be over in a few weeks, she said.

Craig Burns, director of University Counseling Services, said that while staff members expected to be out of the office for a short period of time, they couldn’t have imagined that a year later they would still be somewhat remote.

“[We were] telling staff that we were probably gonna be away from the office at least for a few weeks, and maybe back in June,” he said. “Someone recently joked, ‘When you said we’d be back in June I didn’t realize you were gonna mean June 2021.’”

Nussbaum said that because so many international students couldn’t return to campus in the fall, their program had to provide immigration advising and programming in a totally different way in order to support students from afar. 

Burns said that many of the issues students have been seeking counseling about in the past year stem from the pandemic.

“Obviously, many of the same issues are still there, but a new thing that we think about and see quite a bit more is issues around isolation and loneliness,” he said. “While there’s always been and continues to be issues around anxiety, the uncertainty and anxiety around health and future is of course much higher than it would have been a year and a half ago.” 

Quigley said he was incredibly proud of the way that the BC community responded in the spring.

“It was an incredibly difficult time in so many different ways, but I think that we did a good job,” he said. “We got to the end of the term.”

The chaos and crowds of last March feel like a far cry from the reality of life one year into the pandemic, Kim said.

“It’s just strange,” Kim said. “It feels like another life entirely, where we were celebrating with our friends, like going out to bars one last time.”

Reflecting on the experience of being sent home, students and administrators have gained a new perspective after a year of learning to adapt to pandemic life.

Contrary to her sentiment last March that the entire world was on pause, Dryja said she’s learned to live with the pandemic and go about her life in different ways.  

Although Kim has been reflecting on what has been taken away from him personally, as the one-year mark of being sent home comes and goes, his losses are now situated in a much broader global context, he said. Much has changed in the last year, he said, but it feels like the world has been stuck in a state of suspended animation.

“I still have sadness from what was taken away from us, but you look at what has transpired everywhere else in the country … it’s really difficult to truly be that upset with what was taken from us when you compare what’s been taken from other people,” Kim said. “I think that perspective is something that [only comes] with time.”

 

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

Photos by Èamon Laughlin / Heights Editor and Maddy Romance / Heights Editor and Courtesy of Nicole Clermont, Tingwei Hu, and Young Kim

 

 

 

March 15, 2021