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'It's a bummer': college students share what returning to campus is like right now

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What it's like to return to college during a pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March, colleges and universities were relatively quick to send students home. On March 9, The University of Washington was the first to move to remote learning, creating a domino effect of schools across the country and causing headaches for some students. Schools such as Harvard gave students only a handful of days to evacuate campus. 

But while the coronavirus has continued to surge in communities across the country, many schools and politicians have steadily insisted students should return for the new academic year.

Now, as the fall semester begins, some schools that have returned students to campus are experiencing troubling spikes in cases of coronavirus. 

"We all had to get tested before we came back to school but within five days, I think we had over 500 confirmed cases," says Drew Brown, a graduate student studying accounting at the University of Alabama. "It just seems like everyone's scrambling to figure out what to do."

The University of Alabama's Covid-19 dashboard indicates that on August 18, 158 students had tested positive for the virus. Classes began on August 19, and by August 24, an additional 562 students tested positive. Now, over 2,000 have tested positive.

Spikes like these are happening on college campuses across the country, forcing some schools to move classes online and quarantine students themselves, worrying college faculty and staff, prompting students to stage protests and creating an academic semester unlike any other. 

CNBC Make It spoke with college students about what college during Covid-19 is like right now:

Moving in

The freshman class of 2024 is among those most likely to have physically returned to campus this fall, and moving in was a unique experience. 

Cameron Reeves is a freshman at the University of Missouri, studying film. He says "Mizzou" students were assigned 90-minute move-in slots, spread out across a week-and-a-half period, in order to minimize the number of students in a given space at one time.

The University of Missouri brought all first-time students onto campus between August 12 and August 19. The school has reported enrolling some 5,400 students in its freshman class. 

"I moved in on the 15th, and I had from eight o'clock to nine-thirty to get all my stuff in," Reeves recalls, describing how he and his roommate, a longtime friend, moved into their small dorm room. "Mizzou is doing roommates, which I know other schools in Missouri aren't. I believe Central Missouri isn't doing roommates."

He adds that he is particularly grateful to be sharing a space with someone he knows and trusts, rather than a stranger, because of the heightened stakes of sharing a small space during a pandemic. 

"We both have people in our lives who are immunocompromised — his girlfriend is, my dad is — and so we have both agreed we are going to play this as safe as we possibly can. As soon as we walk out of that door, we're wearing a mask," says Reeves.  

Each morning, Reeves and his classmates are asked to take their temperatures, take a photo of their thermometers and submit the photo through a mobile app called CampusClear.

"If I have a fever, then I think they might send me a test, but I don't know if they have tests," he says. 

Such mobile app systems have become a popular low-cost approach to preventing the spread of Covid-19 on college campuses, but it is yet to be seen how effective they are.

So far, Mizzou has reported 822 confirmed cases of coronavirus among students. 

"The data is concerning," says Reeves. "My parents work at the university and I know that they aren't testing faculty, like my dad didn't get tested, my mom hasn't gotten tested. I'm worried for them mostly, especially my dad, because he's immune-compromised, so if he gets it, it's not going to be a good time."

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Some schools test more than others

Many schools have also enacted some kind of protocol in which students are tested for the virus before they return to campus and routinely tested thereafter. For instance, Harvard University has said that the school will test on-campus students every three days. Yale plans to test on-campus students twice a week. 

But without a robust public testing program, if and how often students are tested is highly dependent on the school they attend — and how much money their school can afford to spend. 

Anna Clyburn, a senior at Rice University in Houston, Texas says she has been tested five times since returning to campus in late July.

"I was tested in one of our academic facilities. We had a rapid test upon arrival. So you go in, your parents don't accompany you or no one else accompanies you. You do a self-swab rapid test and wait until that test has been processed. If the test comes back negative, then you're able to move into your respective on-campus housing spaces," she says. "Each week we are then tested through a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test that should be able to give more accurate results than the rapid test. So I believe I'm now on my fourth PCR test since I've been here at Rice and have not tested positive." 

Nidhi Duggal, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina says this is not the case at her school. 

"No one that I know of at least has been required to get tested," she says. "I personally did just for my own sake."

Since August 1, Rice has administered 14,482 tests and found 16 cases of coronavirus, a positivity rate of 0.11%.

Since August 11, UNC has administered 5,289 tests and found 1,085 cases of coronavirus, a positivity rate of 20.5%. The school has been forced to shift to virtual learning in order to address the outbreak.

This dramatic gap in access to testing concerns Clyburn.

"My brother goes to [North Carolina State], where Covid clusters have just started to rise, in part due to a lack of mandatory testing," she says. "I'm worried about him."

She continues, "I think we really do come as a university from a place of privilege, being able to invest as much as we have in our return. I mean, it's a highly expensive endeavor and that is not lost on me."

"At the current prices, these tests are very expensive. In the case of Harvard, you're still talking about actual costs of testing that are at least $100 per student per week. And probably much more than that," estimates doctor and professor Howard P. Forman, who directs Yale's Health Care Management program. 

Forman says that fast and regular tests can help the schools track and prevent the spread of infection, but it's not cheap. 

"These costs are very, very large," he says. "Testing like that is completely unaffordable to most public institutions. Institutions that have large endowments, and can afford to take a loss for one year or one semester, are able to absorb it. Institutions that are reliant on state funds, to a great degree in an environment where states are cash strapped, are just not able to do it."

Cameron Reeves is a freshman at the University of Missouri
Courtesy of Cameron Reeves

Prohibited parties

Another factor impacting colleges' abilities to control coronavirus is their inability to stop students from socializing. 

While many schools have enacted community guidelines prohibiting large social gatherings, college parties continue to cause spikes in cases of coronavirus. 

"The main problems are just like the other students around campus that you can't control, especially the fraternities, that have been not exactly following the rules," says Reeves. 

Brown also says that he has seen instances of University of Alabama students flouting rules against large groups, noting that he has had to turn down invitations from classmates.

"The university tried to enforce no social gatherings within the fraternity and sorority houses, and they're not supposed to gather in common spaces, but it's pretty hard to police inside a space like that. The sororities were holding bid day at one of the local bars," he says referencing an incident involving photos of maskless patrons outside of local Tuscaloosa bars that has resulted in arrests and citations. "And especially the frat houses are huge. They have hundreds of members." 

Taylor Molden, is a senior studying human resources management at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. She says her boyfriend had coronavirus in March, and having witnessed how frightening the virus can be she gets frustrated when she sees students attending large parties. 

"Many people don't take it seriously because they haven't been closely impacted. But for me, having someone that was close to me that was sick with the virus, that kind of opened my eyes and kind of made me realize this is real," she says. "We got through it, but it was a very scary experience."

Molden says she has chosen to take all of her classes online, in part to try and keep her and her boyfriend safe. 

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"School should not be in person"

Now, even students like Molden who were once eager to return to their normal college lives say that classes should be held remotely — at least for now. 

"I think they should just completely do remote learning for at least the fall semester, because it doesn't seem like the rate is getting any lower in North Carolina," says Duggal. "And if things were to get better, then spring could be in person, which would be nice. But at least for the fall, I feel like remote learning is the best option."

"I think that learning should have been kept online for at least a couple of months," says Molden,  adding that she wishes the school would refund remote students for services they no longer have access to, such as athletic facilities. 

"I understand it's a business thing, but also for students: we broke," she says. 

Brown says he thinks schools like his are afraid of students asking for such refunds. 

"I think that they're going to push staying on campus for as long as possible just so that there's not a big issue with refunds," he explains. "I don't think that they want to send us home. I don't think they want to go to online classes, but it seems like that's the best option."

He continues, "I want the in-person college experience just as much as everybody else because sitting in my apartment all day really does suck. But I think that everyone can agree that in the best interest and for the health of students, as of right now, school should not be in person just because it's not safe and people should not be allowed to drink at the bars until 12 a.m."

Reeves adds that as much as he wishes could make new friends the same ways college students have in the past, he "can't get too mad about it."

"Sure, it's a bummer, but at least we're not dying," he says. "It's just a necessary evil, I guess."

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