Preparing to return to an in-person college experience next fall

By Olivia Montes

Lifestyle Editor

On April 9, the Washington College Contingency Planning Group announced that in-person instruction will resume next fall semester and continue to uphold the guidelines and updates released under the Centers for Disease Control, including wearing masks and other face coverings and practicing social distancing between three and six feet apart. 

According to the campus-wide email sent on April 30, in compliance with further questions from the campus community, the CPG also intends to release a complete, updated guidance plan for WC students, staff, and faculty outlining plans for an in-person fall semester no later than July 1. A decision on vaccination requirements for next fall will be announced by June 4. 

In the meantime, here is what students need to know in preparation for returning to a new normal college experience next semester. 

First, in terms of academics, according to the April 9 CPG newsletter, students will be facing “maximum capacities that reflect [three to six feet] social distancing within the classrooms and other learning spaces” with an enforced mask and face covering mandate. 

In addition, according to Assistant Dean for Student Success and Retention Tya Parker-Pope, many students will have to adjust to living an environment that is different from the typical “busy feel” of the campus, far apart from the buzzing, bustling experiences they’ve had prior to the pandemic. 

“[Life] is not going to be the way that it was, so we have to accept that, and now we have to figure out what that [new normal] will look like,” she said. “For students…it’s going to be adjusting the idea that you have to put a lot more thought into what you’re doing throughout your day.”

However, according to Parker-Pope, these unexpected circumstances of being apart from one another and not being on campus have allowed for many students to reevaluate the difference between just how busy they would like to be and how much they should be. 

Instead, when coming back to campus, students should be prepared to form a balance between academic and social commitments to feel more comfortable and productive, as well as to continue to adapt to an ever-changing and ever-uncertain new normal.

“It’s the little [aspects of life] we took for granted that we were told to think about…are what we should think about more critically,” Parker-Pope said. “All of it is going to look different, but it can be done…you just have to modify the way it gets done.”

“While I did appreciate the buzz that was on campus, I often worried about our students, and the level of stress that they put themselves under,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have to have our days look quite the way we did before, and maybe that’s okay — and maybe it’s actually better.”

Regarding in-person social interactions, after spending a year in both a virtual learning and social environment, and physically apart from one another, it is understandable that students would want to get back together in person as soon as possible. 

According to Dr. Sarah Feyerherm, the vice president and dean of Student Affairs, before the COVID-19 pandemic, because of the College’s size, “face to face interactions have always been the foundation of the student experience.” This includes attending class, hanging out in residence halls, and even walking up and down the Cater Walk.

“It’s understandable that losing that [in-person interaction] would hit us particularly hard; that’s how we learn, how we check in on each other [and] support each other,” she said. “Words spoken over Zoom are important — but they don’t equal an authentic, in-person conversation. We adjusted — humans always do — but the adjustment was out of necessity, not choice.” 

In terms of social interaction, students are also recommended to keep up to date with CDC guidance as means of making themselves and others more comfortable when being around other people.

“Students shouldn’t expect that even though we’ve all been craving a return to normal that it will be easy, [and] I think students need to respect that not everyone will be feeling the same way,” Dr. Feyerherm said. “Some will want to get back quickly to the normal and some will continue to be hesitant. Those are both normal responses and honestly, until we know the path of the pandemic, how long vaccines can provide protection, [and] whether variants will have an impact, we should all continue to be cautious.” 

In addition to continuing to exhibit caution, Dr. Feyerherm also recommends that students should also strive to make vaccine appointments as soon as possible, as it could allow for students to not only feel even more comfortable with other people and in their surroundings, but also to slowly get reacquainted with being out in the world again. 

“The best [that] students can do is to get vaccinated,” Dr. Feyerherm said. “That truly is how we maximize the…college experience and be able to focus our energies and resources on all of those other things that make WC special.” 

Concerning emotional and mental health, students are also encouraged to make an appointment with Health & Counseling Services for assistance regarding their own personal well-being. In addition, the now opened Intercultural Center, located on the first floor of Minta Martin, will provide wide-reaching, safe spaces for marginalized students and organizations alike.

With all this in mind, it is important to be mindful that, while it does appear that the situation is improving, according to junior Mariama Thiam, “being back on campus doesn’t mean that [life is] back to normal,” as the spread of COVID-19 continues to be a lingering presence within our world.

With all this in mind, it is important to be mindful that, while it does appear that the situation is improving, according to junior Mariama Thiam, “being back on campus doesn’t mean that [life is] back to normal,” as the spread of COVID-19 continues to be a lingering presence within our world.

“After hearing about the COVID-19 outbreaks in Chester [Hall in February], I became worried about how much worse that might get in the fall,” Thiam said. “The number of students coming back is much larger, so the stakes are even higher and I’m worried that some people don’t understand that.”

As the semester comes to an end, and the fall is still on the horizon, while it can be intimidating to face a near-unrecognizable world, having a sharpened ability to adjust and adapt in unforeseen situations is a skill that can help many students re-familiarize themselves with an on-campus college experience.

“I think we sometimes get stuck in viewing things as normal or not normal, good or bad, or the way we think things ‘should’ be, [as] this sort of thinking takes away from our ability to see things as they are, based on the facts, or seeing reality simply ‘as is,” clinical counselor Ronald Jennings said. “In short, we have all been through a lot of transition in the past year and a half.  The more psychologically ‘flexible’ we can be, the better.” 

While the future remains uncertain, many students continue to anticipate — and hope — that this will be a series of first steps towards achieving a new normal, yet interesting, college experience for all. 

“Going back…will be something I anticipate the most, [as] I miss seeing friends and working on campus,” junior Ala Hussen said. “Although we are going through a rough time, I hope that we are able to do activities — but in a safe environment.” 

Featured Photo caption: With the spring semester coming to a close, and with the recent announcement that the College will resume in-person instruction next semester, here are ways students can prepare in time for the fall. Photo by Mark Cooley.

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