Editor’s note: InDepthNH.org’s intern turned reporter Catherine McLaughlin shares what it’s like leaving home in Gilford to return to Middlebury College in a pandemic.
By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
MIDDLEBURY, VT – Though not anxious to leave the blue-bird, 75-degree August sunshine to begin my dorm-room quarantine, I felt guilty sitting in the courtyard outside my dorm with my pile of stuff, unable to move in.
Upon arrival at my college I immediately went to the athletic center to be tested for COVID-19. I administered the test myself, the supervisor complimented my cow-print mask (which has won me several compliments here in Vermont, unsurprisingly), and I returned to my car in under 15 minutes.
I was then to go immediately to my dorm room to move in, a process for which I was not permitted any assistance, as my Mom and sister were not allowed in my building.
When I entered my room it was full of stuff. None of it was mine.
When we abruptly departed Middlebury on March 13th, the school allowed students to leave some belongings, boxed up and labeled, in their rooms. These belongings would be delivered to their new dorm rooms over the summer or shipped out to them if they had graduated.
Checking the names on the dozen or so boxes, four large suitcases, two each mirrors, mattress toppers, and fridges occupying my room, I discovered that they belonged to not one but three recent alums.
I frustratedly descended the stairs to the courtyard to let my mother and sister know that I could not move in yet. I called the facilities crew, who said they would be along shortly. An hour and a half later they arrived to empty the room.
I was not the only student to experience this issue, and my situation could have been worse. A friend of mine who left most of her school necessities behind had her boxes delivered to the wrong room. She could not retrieve them because of the quarantine. She has been using a t-shirt as a towel for almost three days because hers are boxed up in someone else’s room.
The facilities staff and I were very cordial, yet extra socially distant: they double checked with me that they had not taken anything that was mine and were quickly on their way to help someone else. I was not at all upset with them. Was I annoyed that the college had half the summer to arrange student belongings and yet so many people had mix-ups? Sure.
I had arrived at 4:30 p.m., but I did not have all my bins, pillows, laundry baskets full of clothes, and snacks in my room with the door shut, and therefore did not properly begin my quarantine, until it was dark outside.
Out of nearly 2,600 students and staff tested at Middlebury College, a few hundred administered 10 days ago for freshman arrivals, and the overwhelming majority administered throughout the day on Friday, only 2 positive cases were identified.
Friday arrivals had to move into, and then quarantine in, our rooms until we received our test results. We received a bag of food at the testing center, and subsequent meals for just over 48 hours were delivered to our doors. We were only allowed to leave our rooms to use the bathroom.
Once finally moved in, I had a very comfortable room-quarantine. I decorated my walls, made myself coffee with my mini-French press, did yoga, and watched movies. Saturday was a blustery, stormy day and I probably would not have done much different anyway.
The food was, on the whole, good. Good is a word that is both slightly boring and yet generally positive, which is exactly how the food was.
The meals were vegan, featuring grain and noodle bowls, a fruit and a bagel for breakfast, and lots and lots of trail mix. I’m sure many felt some chagrin at missing their meaty protein staples, but I really could not have been bothered. The food was fresh, mostly nutritious, and delivered punctually to my door, so the fact that it needed salt seemed unimportant.
The only hiccup was that school administrators had promised students that test results would be delivered, and quarantine lifted, in 24 to 36 hours. Most students I know, myself included, never expected them to meet this deadline. But apparently they expected themselves to.
For when Sunday rolled around, students waited for lunch that had not yet arrived and email boxes remained conspicuously empty. Eventually we received an email detailing the delay and noting that lunch would be delivered to us soon.
This meal was below the par of previous ones, to be brief. A small box of slightly soggy lettuce with steak and a bag of chips had been hurriedly tossed in a bag and delivered to our doors sometime before 2:30 p.m. I ate the meal, but the numerous vegans and vegetarians on campus obviously could not.
I was not upset about the delay. As mentioned, I expected it. But it seemed naive of the school to be caught unprepared.
Students started receiving test results around 3 p.m. Sunday, but the release was staggered. Some, including a good friend of mine, did not get out of room quarantine until almost 8 p.m.
I received my negative result around 4 p.m. and I promptly took a long stroll around my verdant and quaint Vermont home. Freshman were hanging around campus in circles playing icebreaker games and recent arrivals like me wandered around with cheerful aimlessness.
It was so hard to recognize people, even my best friends. I realized that everyone on campus will have to become one of two people: the person who says hi to everyone they might recognize to avoid the risk of being rude, or the person who only says hi to people they are sure they know to avoid the risk of awkwardly greeting a stranger. I think I am the former.
I met up with two friends of mine and we grabbed dinner, which was prepackaged take-out from the dining hall. There was a meat and a veggie entree, and prepackaged cereal, cake, and pasta on the side. We have been assigned dining halls and dining hours based upon last name.
Tents and Adirondack chairs had been spread around campus and, for the brief period of pleasant fall weather we get here in Middlebury, eating outside will be a nice change.
Middlebury’s arrival process relies on a pre-arrival quarantine, a day zero test with a quarantine, and a day seven retest of everyone. Until day seven test results have come back, we are allowed to leave our rooms but confined to a campus-quarantine.
Until campus-quarantine is lifted and we enter what is called “phase two,” we cannot use school buildings like the library and the gym and we are not allowed in residence halls that are not our own.
As a senior, I am keenly aware of how much I have to lose. One thing I want people to understand about a lot of college students, especially upper-classmen, is that we are all still processing grief.
I don’t subscribe to the myth that these are the “best days of my life,” but I still feel the sting of missing the experiences that I felt the investment of time and money in college promised me. This includes everything from in-person classes to club sports, to sharing greasy, late-night fries with friends, and, yes, parties.
A few small parties of freshman have already been broken up. While my senior friends and I are frustrated that our younger peers do not seem to be taking the stakes of this effort seriously, we also deeply sympathize with them. We know that they feel the same grief and sense of loss that we do.
Things feel both surreal and suddenly normal again. Being away from this place so long was strange, and being back feels like my first taste of something resembling normalcy since March 13th. That normalcy, that feeling of living a life that I can recognize, makes me so grateful to be back, even if so much is different or missing.