This past fall, while much of the world was sheltering in place and leaving their homes as little as possible to lower their risk of being exposed to COVID-19, college students across the world were doing something that might seem unthinkable in the middle of a pandemic:
Many students faced the difficult decision of if they should come back to the Madison area at the beginning of both the Fall and Spring semesters, both of which began when COVID-19 cases were on the rise. Despite the majority of classes and student activities being held virtually, many students made the decision to return for non-academic reasons.
“You only get four years of college, so I think you’re losing something from going home and just taking classes from your bedroom,” sophomore Sienna Green said. “If you’re able to, you might as well put yourself on a college campus.”
Others felt that the risk of contracting COVID-19 by coming back to Madison was too high.
“I decided to stay home because I am in general very nervous about COVID,” junior Molly Kehoe said. “If I’m on a college campus in a pandemic, I’ll be constantly worried and convinced that I have it.”
Though in-person classes were not the main motivator for many students who decided to return to Madison, some students ran into problems with their schedule after opting to stay home for the semester.
Kehoe said she doesn’t mind taking her classes fully virtually. She did, however, have to change her Fall 2020 schedule after making the decision to stay home because one of her courses only allowed students who would be in-person to participate in the hybrid model of instruction.
“It ended up being fine, but all of last semester I was meeting with my advisors and seeing if it’s possible to take all these classes online that I had to take or I wouldn’t be able to graduate in December,” Kehoe said. “It was a stressor, but it worked out.”
Kehoe originally only planned to stay home for the first semester of school, but after seeing the continuously higher rates of COVID-19 in Madison and having already found someone to sublet her apartment, decided not to return for the second semester either.
Not all students were as lucky. The UW-Madison sublet and roommate Facebook group has been highly active since the pandemic began, with daily posts by individuals looking to sublet rooms and even entire apartments and houses. Because many students sign leases for the subsequent year early on, some who opted not to return to Madison this year were unable to get out of their leasing contract or find someone to sublease to.
For students who stayed at home for the semester, some of the stress about COVID-19 was mitigated by not being on a college campus or seeing as many people. Still, many of these students faced other stress factors from not being on campus with their friends.
“I’m missing out on things, and part of me feels like I’m not going through that experience with anyone,” Kehoe said. “I still talk to my friends, but I feel some level of disconnect.”
For many freshmen, the decision to come and live on campus was motivated by the desire to make friends in-person rather than from behind a screen. Because freshman year is a time when so many students find the friends they spend the next four years with, many were hesitant to miss out on that experience.
But for those living in the dorms, frequent exposure to COVID-19 caused some additional anxiety on top of adjusting to life in a new environment.
When the Sellery and Witte residence halls went into a two week lockdown in September following an outbreak, many students opted to ride out the lockdown at home, or to move to an apartment for the rest of the year. According to University Housing, the residents halls opened at about 83% capacity for the fall semester, but occupancy fell to about 64% by the beginning of spring semester.
Dr. Katie Eklund, an Associate Professor in the School Psychology program at UW-Madison, noted that the pandemic and increased housing instability have caused a rise in mental health concerns among students.
“When students experience social isolation and abrupt transitions, they can be especially prone to feelings of loneliness and higher rates of anxiety and depression,” she said.
Meaning, when students are removed from their social support systems and extracurricular activities on campus, they can develop a feeling of lost connection to friends, organizations and other interests they are used to being able to pursue.
“It’s important to remember that each student will need or want something different during this time of uncertainty during the pandemic. For some college students, staying home for the semester or year might represent a great choice for their own mental health and wellbeing,” Eklund said. “For other students, this set-up could be less than ideal.”
This school year has brought extra anxiety for nearly all students, but that doesn't mean that individuals who decided to come to campus and those that decided to stay home didn’t make the right choices for their safety and wellness.
For Green, being at home with her family meant that her ability to socialize was much more restricted because she did not want to spread the virus to anyone in her household. This was enough to motivate Green to come back to Madison.
“It was definitely more tense at home in terms of the COVID situation,” she said. “All the decisions you make at home directly impact your parents.”
While Kehoe does plan to return to school next fall, she intentionally signed a lease in a smaller apartment building where there is less risk of spreading the virus.
“[When looking for an apartment] I was really thinking about where I could be around the least amount of people,” Kehoe stated. “If I wasn’t worried about the pandemic, I would be a lot more open to more places.”