Zoom classes, no dorm parties, daily symptom checks: Living on-campus during the pandemic

Colleges nationwide have been starting classes over the past few weeks. Some are in-person. Most are virtual. Some have students living on campus. Since the pandemic began, more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases occurred at more than 1000 colleges, according to the New York Times. The University of Alabama and the University of South Carolina both recorded more than 1,000 positive tests in August.

California is faring better, probably because colleges are limiting the number of students living on campus, and holding most classes online.

KCRW checks in on what life is like for two California students. Cameron Johnson is a freshman at UC Berkeley and Manhattan Beach resident. Sophia Nakasone is about to be a senior at UC Irvine, where she’ll work as a resident advisor (RA) in the dorms. She’s from Carpinteria.

Ashley Smith also joins the conversation. She covers higher education for EdSource and has been looking at how California universities are bringing students back to campus. 

KCRW: Cameron, what’s life in the dorms been like the last two weeks? 

Cameron Johnson: “I think the adjustment has been pretty easy for me. All the rooms are single rooms. There's only 12 people on my floor. And we only really leave to get food at the dining hall. But I've still had classes and sorority recruitment for the past week. So it's been a lot more normal than I was expecting.” 

So you’re rushing a sorority?

Cameron Johnson: “Yeah, it’s all online through Zoom.”

Are you attending classes in person?

Cameron Johnson: “No, none of the classes are in person. All of mine are kind of a mix of synchronous and asynchronous. So maybe a Zoom once or twice a week. And then the rest of the work is going to be on the online platform Canvas.”

Why did you want to be on campus if everything is online? Why did you want to be by yourself in the dorm?

Cameron Johnson: “I think I needed a quiet place to work and really focus on my studies, which I didn't really have at home, and all my friends were moving out. So I didn't want to be alone in my hometown, and kind of just be in the same situation I was in at the end of high school. So I definitely wanted a change of scenery. And I've been wanting to move in for the past 19 years.”

Have you made any friends?

Cameron Johnson: “Yeah, we did our orientation groups through the kids that are in the floors around us and on our floor. So I got to meet the people that are around me that way, and we're allowed to get food together. So I've met people when getting dinner and lunch and things.”

But it’s not the same as it would have been a year ago. How does that make you feel emotionally? 

Cameron Johnson: “It's a little bit of a loss. But everything has kind of been that way for the past couple of months, especially with the end of my senior year not being normal. So I feel like I'm kind of used to the weirdness of it.”

Sophia, you are going to move in on Monday, but classes don't start until October 1. You're moving into UC Irvine to get training to be an RA. What are you expecting?

Sophia Nakasone: “I think I'm expecting a lot of what Cameron was talking about, just a lot of Zooms. All of our RA training will be done online through Zoom. The only time that we'll be able to leave really is to go get food from the dining hall. And that's just takeout only. So a lot of that, I suppose.”

Rising senior Sophia Nakasone says she’ll have to enforce social distancing and facial covering rules as an RA this upcoming school year. Photo credit: Ryan Nakasone

You’re going to be a senior this year. What’s your major? Will you have classes in person? 

Sophia Nakasone: “I'm double majoring in Economics and Criminology Law in Society. [And] no, all my classes will be online.” 

Since you experienced college pre-pandemic, this might be more of a shock for you than for Cameron.

Sophia Nakasone: “Yeah, it was definitely a shock at the end of our winter quarter at UC Irvine. I remember I was in class when all of us got the email that all of our classes will be online for you spring quarter, and all of our finals will be take-home finals, and they'll be online for the rest of winter quarter. So that was probably the last time I was in a big room of people. And just feeling the chaotic energy, I suppose, was really an interesting moment. Everyone [was] just shocked and not knowing what to do. It was a very interesting time.”

Why did you want to come back to campus?

Sophia Nakasone: “I had the RA position secured late February, early March. So I knew that would be a reason for me to come back to campus. Even though Student Housing has made it very clear and has been very understanding with us and has said, ‘If you ever feel uncomfortable being on campus, you're more than welcome to go home and we understand.’ 

I think I was just looking for a sense of normalcy, going back to campus. And luckily, it wasn't about the issue of housing costs because thankfully Student Housing covers our housing costs as RAs. But I've just really wanted to come back to campus just to have my own quiet space, like Cameron said, to be able to focus on what I was learning and stuff.”

Ashley Smith, is what you're hearing from Sophia and Cameron squaring with what you’ve been seeing statewide at different campuses? 

Ashley Smith: “Yes, I have heard a number of students talk about going back to campus, choosing to live on campus, just to have their own space, as Sophia was describing. And you know, the universities have really tried to cut back the number of people who stay, who come and go on campus. They are working requiring that students let them know about their symptoms, to let them know how they're feeling. Nearly every UC and CSU campus that I've spoken with, they've talked about issuing directives to students to socially distance and to be proactive about their health and if they are displaying symptoms.”

In most cases, it’s up to the student to take the initiative?

Ashley Smith: “Some campuses require students to get a COVID test before moving back to campus. UC Merced even offered baseline testing. Humboldt State, they tested the students once they moved in and again during the second week on-campus. 

But for the most part, a lot of campuses aren't doing widespread testing. And so they have created smartphone apps that require students to basically go through a series of checks and explain if they are showing symptoms or if they have been around someone who perhaps has COVID-19. This type of self screening is just sort of their way to be proactive, and it requires the students to take some initiative here and be honest and try and keep their classmates safe.”

A lot of transmission happens from asymptomatic people. So if there’s no widespread testing, how effective would that be? Are campus administrators worried they could be facing an outbreak? 

Ashley Smith: “Some campuses have already seen an outbreak. I mean, we just saw this week here in California, Chico State and San Diego State basically closed their in-person classes. Chico State closed their dorms because of outbreaks that didn't necessarily happen on campus, but happened among the student population that live off campus. I think that when you bring any significant number of people together, even on a campus, they have to be aware that there is some risk and that without constant testing, there is a chance that the virus will spread.”

What are the protocols? Dr. Anthony Fauci said students shouldn’t go home if they test positive. Are there rules on these campuses as to what's going to happen if students test positive?

Ashley Smith: “Most campuses, especially if they have their dorms open to students, they have isolation rooms. They have apartments that would allow students to quarantine for the sort of 14-day period. And some campuses, they have their own dining services where they'll provide meals to those students in a no contact fashion. So it gives those students a chance to get better. 

But if a student tests positive, they want them to isolate, they want them to quarantine. They are not allowed on campus. If they are attending in-person classes, they should not go to those classes. They should notify public health and the university if they have contracted the virus.”

Cameron, what’s testing been like at UC Berkeley? 

Cameron Johnson: “Before I moved in, I had to take a symptoms check. And then I got tested the day that I moved in. And then we had to have a sequestering period of seven to 10 days where we didn't interact with anyone. And then after that we got tested again. And after we got our negative result was when we were allowed to go to like local restaurants or on campus.” 

How often will you be tested from now on? 

Cameron Johnson: “They haven't told us yet, but I'm assuming it's going to be around once a month from what they've said so far.”

Are you supposed to self monitor and report in if you experience symptoms?

Cameron Johnson: “Yes, we have a number that we're supposed to call if we're feeling any symptoms, and then we'll get retested and sequestered in a different dorm.”

Sophia, what’s going to happen at UC Irvine?

Sophia Nakasone: “They will be testing everyone at move-in — all the residents who are moving in, as well as RAs this weekend when we move in. And we also have to fill out daily symptom checks on an app, and you either report yes, you're feeling symptomatic, [or] no, you don't have any symptoms, or you're just not on campus right now. We've had to do that, I believe for about a little over a week now. And then starting early October, they'll be testing everyone on campus every week.”

In your role as an RA, will you have to enforce physical distancing and mask wearing? 

Sophia Nakasone: “Yes. So that's a big new addition to our job responsibilities as RAs, is enforcing physical distancing and wearing facial coverings. We just heard today that if we as RAs catch residents having gatherings and refusing to put on facial coverings, it could result in suspension from the university.”

You’re a student and you have to enforce that among other students. Are you okay with that? That seems like a lot to ask of you. 

Sophia Nakasone: “Yeah, it is quite a bit to ask of me. It is something that can be difficult. I haven't had to experience it yet. So honestly, I'm not really sure what I'm going to expect. I am hoping that people are educated enough on the matter and will be willing to follow the rules. But if not, I have to do what's safest for UCI, and I have to do what’s safest for everyone living in the housing communities.”

Ashley, why isn’t there a more uniform standard? You heard UC Berkeley might be testing once a month, and UC Irvine once a week. Why isn’t there uniformity in the UC system? 

Ashley Smith: “I think some of it comes down to cost and who can afford to do as much testing as other campuses. And the campuses have sort of their own governing systems and yes, they're all under the Chancellor's Office in the CSUs or the Regents in the UCs. 

But they all have their own leadership and they're all a bit independent and have control over what happens on their campuses. And regionally, California is very diverse. And that's true for these campuses too, and what they offer, what their students look like, and how each of the different areas of California and the counties have been handling COVID. So I think that's why we have been seeing so much variability.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski