A view of the Student Campus Center at Pomona College. Photograph courtesy of Ananya Saluja
Just over a year ago, college students across the world packed their belongings into brown boxes and moved back to their hometowns as the spread of the novel coronavirus began to spiral out of control. The shift, both from college campuses to childhood homes, and from in-person classes to online schooling, predictably took a toll on the mental health of innumerable students, and as the pandemic persists, the question of how higher education institutions will respond to accommodate ‘the new normal’ remains pressing. Most notable is the question of how college housing policies, which in large part have disallowed students from returning to campuses and in-person classes, have, and continue to, impact students who are struggling with newfound difficulties in the wake of the pandemic.
In March 2020, I was convinced that the virus would not prove impactful in the long-run—in fact, I was confident that I would return from India to the United States in order to partake in a summer internship. One year later, and I have yet to return to college, which thanks to its location in LA County, has been refused permission to reopen. I would have imagined that three consecutive online semesters would allow me to acclimate myself to the virtual class culture, and provide me with a set of skills to tackle the obstacles of online learning, but each semester has proven progressively more difficult, and unique in the challenges it presents.
While the initial transition to teaching and learning over Zoom proved difficult for both students and professors due to a relative lack of experience in and engagement with the interface, the effects have been variable, and unfortunately, damaging. International students who were forced to migrate back to their home countries still grapple with the odd timing of classes, and despite learning being ostensibly optimized to a virtual space, insufficient accommodations are made for people who cannot attend classes or engage in the same way they would pre-pandemic. Many students have found themselves juggling jobs and household responsibilities alongside academic and co-curricular commitments, introducing an added aspect of mental and physical strain that a place at college would usually diminish. From a logistical perspective, students spread across the country, the globe, and multiple time zones have had to strike a near impossible balance where their time and mental efforts are concerned. Students are left having to find a routine that allows them to maintain all the difficult fronts the pandemic has presented, and housing policies made by higher education institutions, which have mandated that students largely cannot return, have only exacerbated existing inequities.
While college campuses and in-person education provide a sort of cushioning on which to fall back on, and an environment for relative equity in opportunity and safety, the implications of being at college run ever deeper. College environments are often safe havens for students who have experienced toxic relationships, households, and even societal standards; being on campus, or at college in a meaningful way, is often an opportunity for students to express, grow, change, and experience what they may not otherwise be afforded. College is also an invaluable microcosm for both personal and interpersonal growth, and to be robbed of the ability to obtain that in any way can prove devastating. The lack of social respite coupled with long hours on Zoom has caused fatigue and burnout in college populations, and the mental health of college students attempting to maintain grades while still replicating in some way what they would have experienced in-person has been overlooked by higher education institutions.
While in many cases housing policies are a reflection of county or state guidelines, higher education institutions have a responsibility to their students to accommodate for the changed—and continually changing—circumstances, and provide them with the experience they signed up for. Housing policies have always affected college students, but in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, it is more important than ever to reduce the burden on the student, and provide respite if other arrangements cannot be made to the way education is disseminated. Students are deserving not only of the relative safety and equitable environment college campuses provide, but also of some semblance of the social and emotional exposure one experiences in those four years. Even with vaccination rollout picking up pace, the pandemic is likely to persist, and it is the responsibility of higher education institutions to at least partially restore the conditions in which their students best perform and coexist.