Local students adjust to college closures, online classes

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Courtesy of Elena Dagan
Mountain View High School graduate Elena Dagan, pictured in Shanghai during her time in college there, has returned home due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In recent weeks, colleges and universities have shut down on-campus learning, moved most students out of dorms and migrated coursework online due to the spread of COVID-19.

The millions of students impacted include graduates of Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. While many are now quarantined in one of the six Bay Area counties until at least April 8, some remain scattered across the country. Regardless of location, however, many of them surely miss college life – the lectures, labs, sports, clubs and other opportunities to grow.

While the pandemic didn’t impact most students until March, Mountain View High graduate Elena Dagan has been affected since January. A freshman at New York University in Shanghai, China, Dagan was one of the first students moved to online classes as a result of the virus due to the school’s proximity to Wuhan, where the virus originated.

Dagan said the school initially moved the starting date of classes back two weeks but eventually closed the campus altogether. She has since returned home.

“It’s been surreal to watch the whole event unfold across the world in such a short amount of time while also affecting my life in such an unexpected way,” Dagan said. “With hectic school emails piling up, classes in multiple time zones and being away from friends around the world and down the street, I’m still slogging through Chinese homework all the same.”

Grieving a lost experience

As a freshman at the University of Washington in Seattle, one of the first domestic schools whose policy was affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Lauren Wang similarly recalls how “surreal” the entire transition from on-campus classes to at-home learning was for her. The Los Altos High graduate said changes to classes occurred quickly, with many professors modifying class attendance and test policies the night before they were scheduled.

While the professors began making changes March 2, the school four days later mandated that all classes would be online for the rest of winter quarter. Wang left campus the following day. On March 13, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered that all schools cancel in-person classes until April 14, all but guaranteeing that the spring quarter would continue online as well.

“I’m bummed that I won’t be going back for my spring quarter and that I left without really saying goodbye to some friends I won’t see for a while,” Wang said.

Aria Cataño, a senior at USC and Mountain View High alumna, raised a similar concern – especially for students who are slated to graduate this year.

“I think the biggest issue for all of us is never having the chance to say goodbye,” Cataño said. “To just leave abruptly assuming you’re going to come back and to be told later that actually you should all leave permanently is a bit jarring.”

Cornell University freshman Aarushi Gupta, a graduate of Mountain View High, shared Cataño’s sentiments, given her spring admission status. She didn’t enroll in school until January, which is when Cornell starts its spring term, and had little time to make friends and adjust to campus life.

“It is just really shocking and somewhat frustrating to have waited so long to go to college and have all the experiences I saw my friends having during my semester off and then having them taken away only two months later,” Gupta said. “I feel that my whole college experience is basically being postponed until next year.”

Students of all years have felt this interruption, including UC Berkeley transfer student Robert Abou Samra. The Mountain View High graduate and De Anza College transfer said he was excited to finish up at Berkeley, only to be greeted with school closure in his first semester due to power outages and now the pandemic.

“It was pretty unfortunate for this outbreak to occur and ruin everyone’s college experience, especially the first-year students and graduating class, knowing they can’t get that experience back again,” Abou Samra said. “It’s a shock that me and the rest of the Berkeley student body had to endure such problems, destroying future memories students may have had with one another.”

Students who aren’t just starting at a new school or finishing up have felt the repercussions of closure as well. They include sophomore Annie Rustum, a student at American University and Mountain View High alumna.

“I think it just feels like a part of your college experience has been taken away,” Rustum said. “You want to be frustrated at that and you want to throw a fit about it, but in reality everyone is going through the same thing.”

Additionally, Rustum noted that the school closures would affect students differently based on their income. She added that those who are financially stable would likely not be as harmed as those who depend on a salary or employment and are now having to leave their place of work and move back home.

Employment prospects are also impacting graduating seniors right now, among them Cataño.

“I think at this rate it doesn’t really seem like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Cataño said of the current economic situation. “Everyone seems to be getting anxious about post-grad as well since it seems we’ll be graduating into what looks like a massive recession,” she said.

Accentuating the positive

Despite all the uncertainty and cancellations, many Mountain View and Los Altos graduates are trying to maintain a positive attitude – though it’s not always easy.

Rachel Soetarman, a freshman at the University of Indiana, said she worried about what would happen when students returned from spring break trips all over the world and turned the college into a “petri dish.” According to Soetarman, she’s glad classes were moved online to prevent further spread of the infection.

“I felt very anxious being there. No one at school cared about it and were making so many jokes,” the Mountain View High graduate said. “I’m just frustrated with reckless people who aren’t taking it seriously.”

Wang also applauded her university for taking steps toward mitigating the virus by moving classes online and closing campuses. She remembers many students calling for the university to do so.

Above all, local high school alumni are just trying to get through the day.

“For me personally, it’s not making any hard plans, taking it day by day, and looking at what I have direct control over in the meantime,” Cataño said.

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