This fall, college students embarked on a new reality of college life. Now, many college students are concerned about potential challenges they could face if and when they return to campus for the spring college semester. 

Going out of their way to quash the virus before it could spread, schools, like Colgate University, Dartmouth College, and Wesleyan University started out the fall semester in lockdown. Other schools, including the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin, were forced into lockdowns mid-semester as the cases of COVID-19 spread uncontrollably across the campus. 

In the fall, most college classes throughout the country were virtual, large groups were prohibited from gathering indoors, masks were mandatory, students were not permitted to roam from dorm to dorm, club event to club event, or greek house to greek house, and cafeterias were grab and go. Some schools completely closed their campuses. Some invited back 50 percent of their students. Others invited everyone back, warning that rule breakers would be sent home. 

Now, as COVID-19 cases continue to overwhelm the country, college students are wondering whether protocols will be any different and are considering whether they should stay home or go back to campus.

Here are 4 questions that students are considering as they make the decision whether or not to return to campus for the spring semester.

1 – Will I get COVID-19? Colleges throughout the country invested significant resources and were able to contain the spread of COVID-19 through frequent testing, tracing, and isolation protocols. In addition to testing a percentage or the whole of the students on campus, many schools were also testing the wastewater on campus to try to control potential outbreaks. Many of these efforts were quite successful in containing the spread of COVID-19.

Yet, the fear of contracting COVID-19 still overwhelmed many students throughout the fall semester. CNBC reports that, according to a November 2020 survey overseen by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 21% of college students felt very anxious about contracting COVID-19 studying on campus, while 35% of students felt somewhat anxious about getting sick. This means that over half of the students surveyed suffered from an increased level of anxiety as a result of the pandemic and the possibility of getting sick. Hopefully, with the rollout of the vaccine, most students’ fears will be alleviated, and college students will start to see the start of a return to normalcy. 

2 – Will I have any in person classes? Last spring, many college students felt that they experienced an increased level of stress as they adjusted to studying from their bedrooms, livingrooms, or kitchen tables. This fall, students who attended some in person classes last semester were happier than students who took completely remote classes from home. Many of those taking online classes from their dorm rooms said that they preferred to be on campus in any capacity.

While online learning was not ideal and is counterintuitive to the philosophies of interactive, engaging learning experiences, some students appreciated rolling out of bed and onto their computers for those 8am classes. Some students felt that online learning gave them some control over their learning experience, as they could watch recorded lectures at their leisure and take exams in a less anxiety producing environment. Students at larger universities have suggested that online classes with over 50 students are significantly more challenging as professors are struggling to engage such a large group in an online course. Others have complained about privacy issues and test proctoring failures. Generally speaking, most students felt as if they learned less in their online classes. And while social life is less of a distraction, many students are struggling to focus in the online format as there are minimal opportunities to engage with their professors or peers. 

3 – Will I be lonelier at home or on campus? While college is often an adjustment for many students, the pandemic has made it harder for college students to build bonds, often leaving them lonelier than they would be if they were studying in their rooms at home.

Given aggressive COVID-19 safety protocols, it has been much harder for students to connect with one another. While college freshmen seem to have suffered the most in this regard, with orientations and classes online and many campus cafeterias reduced to “grab and go,” upperclassmen often felt isolated as well. At many schools, the clubs, parties, and classes that bonded them are not possible as the gatherings would be dangerous. This has left college administrators at many schools, including Boston University, encouraging students to be “brave,” and to step out of their comfort zones, to try to make meaningful connections over Zoom, to look up from their phone screens just long enough to say “hi” to someone new. Yet, despite this potentially isolating experience, some students appreciated the opportunity to be surrounded by peers, bonding with other students who were having similar experiences. They found ways to pod together, to create a small group of people with whom they socialized almost exclusively, and they enjoyed the freedom of navigating this strange new situation with their peers.

4 – Will I get kicked out of school or get sick if I participate in any non-sanctioned social events? We cannot predict whether a college student will get sick if he/she attends a large party. But, generally speaking, college students who attended parties were more likely to contract Coronavirus. The world saw what happened at Notre Dame as students rushed the football field and partied after their monumental win over Clemson. Many college-aged students tend to think that they are invincible, so it isn’t surprising that over half the students on college campuses around the country attended large social events without wearing masks. In response, many schools, like the University of Connecticut, The Ohio State University, and Purdue University, suspended students who broke rules designed to protect the health of their peers and professors. While those traditional large college parties were often super spreaders, many students found smaller groups with whom to create a social bubble, offering them a chance to socialize safely. 

The spring semester won’t look drastically different from the fall, but schools are trying to find ways to contain the spread of COVID-19 without completely isolating their students. Many colleges are upping their games for the spring semester, requiring more mandatory testing. In the fall, many of the smaller colleges proved that it was possible to create a bubble that, if all guidelines are followed, will offer college students an opportunity to enjoy more of the benefits of being on a college campus. 

Students know that they must manage their expectations until the vaccine is distributed. They can alter and adjust to fit in to this temporary new norm and make the best of it in college during the spring, or they can remain off campus until college life as we once knew it resumes. That is a personal decision. 

But there is an end in sight, as fall 2021 could offer a return to a normal school year for our college students. 

GAMECHANGER is here to support students throughout this challenging school year.