It’s been 76 days since students came back to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what life has looked like.

Anna Rose bet her friends Juice Stop smoothies it would be three weeks. Annika Johnson wagered it would be a month. Jaden Wendt tried to rid herself of any expectations whatsoever.

Each guessed at how long Augie would last doing in-person classes, living and activities. 

As it turns out, students and staff made it exactly 76 days into this in-person, in-mask, in-pandemic experience, and the goal line, Nov. 20, is closer than ever.

It wasn’t easy to get here, though.

Contact tracers worked all day, every person wore a mask constantly and many students cut back their social lives in favor of recommended protocol. The stakes were high: Failure meant a repeat of spring’s distance learning.

Rick Tupper, the associate vice president of university services, described the semester as a “roller coaster ride” because of the ups and downs in case levels. As he expected, the case counts were initially high but as the semester continued, those numbers started to plateau and descend. 

However, in the final weeks of on-campus operations, cases have spiked again.

At its early peak in September, Augustana had around 50 cases and about 100 members of the campus community in quarantine. Early October brought the lowest levels with 6 active cases and about 30 people in quarantine. Now at the end of the semester, another high point in cases came with more than 40 active cases and more than 160 students and staff in quarantine.

Tupper said his team’s reprieve won’t come until students pack up for the holidays.

Surprise and relief

Coming from spring’s remote learning, students like Rose—a junior communication studies, business and marketing triple major—couldn’t wait to return to chats with friends, movie nights and Friday evening events. Despite Rose’s initial doubts about just how long campus-centered learning would last, she’s surprised and glad that Augie’s more than two months in.

“I think for the most part, we really pulled together, and we saw how much we missed each other last spring,” Rose said. 

Students felt surprise, hesitation and relief at being able to see professors, staff and students for almost the whole semester. Living through a pandemic on a college campus has its lessons.

“Being flexible is good in all situations because truly we don’t ever know what we’re expecting,” said Wendt, a junior American Sign Language interpreting major. “We think we have all these expectations of what life is going to be, but truly we don’t know even if it’s not a pandemic.”

Students have gathered in the dining hall for the Augie bowl and the occasional grilled cheese sandwich just like any other year, but the space looks a lot different. The long, self-serve salad bar and smoothie bikes were traded for a smaller, served version, and what was once a sandwich and wrap line has become a to-go pick up center. Through each change, students gave up their previous comforts and followed masking guidelines.

“Normal may not look like what we thought it would look like a year ago in 2019,” Rose said. “If we would’ve been like ‘What is November 2020 going to look like?’ This  is definitely not what we thought.” 

Social connections are harder, from missing the full facial expression to imagining how to break the ice with new friends.

“Part of me feels like ‘this is the new normal’, but the other part of me is like ‘normal is not being able to wear a mask, being able to hug my friends and just being able to meet new people and connect more,’” Sophia Connelly, a junior biology and Spanish major, said.

Spring is likely to look similar to the last 76 days on campus. It took time to iron out the kinks in the contact tracing and isolation system, but Tupper said they hope to keep improving.

“That one topic [COVID-19] has such a huge implication for all of us, so we had to do it right,” Tupper said. “We’re all human, so we had some areas that we wish we would’ve known or could’ve done better right off the bat. But as we learn, we’re hoping that spring will look a lot smoother for us.”

Run ins with the virus

Tupper and a contact tracing team handle the procedures for isolation and quarantine once they receive positive test results.

Students who choose not to quarantine at home go to a safe place with wifi connectivity provided by Augustana. Tupper said students have as long as they need to pack up before transferring to a quarantine facility. As the semester passed, contact tracers began reminding students to bring anything they would need during the two weeks, including TV or other entertainment.

Wendt got tested after experiencing some mild symptoms, and she waited for her results for five days in Stavig.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I want to keep the people around me safe,” Wendt said.

Her results came back negative. Since COVID-19 has symptoms from runny nose to mild cough, allergies and mild colds can cause questioning of whether it might be the coronavirus.

Blake Chesley, a senior business and finance major, and Connelly came in close contact with the virus when Connelly’s housemate tested positive. 

They worried. How would classes work? When would they be able to return?

Connelly said she and housemates tested negative, so her COVID-positive roommate mostly stayed in her own room of the house during those two weeks. The group received a few texts from campus officials to check in, but Connelly noted that the team seemed overwhelmed.

Tupper said the early September peak meant almost unbearable stress on him and his team. But looking at other universities, he said he knew that effective contact tracing requires time and accuracy, and students quarantining at other schools were reporting feeling cut off. He said calls and texts from campus staff were meant to combat the feelings of isolation that quarantine often brings.

So, Connelly and Chesley spent half of September flipping between homework and New Girl. They painted, biked and watched movies. 

But Chesley said quarantine was still monotonous. The days dragged on. 

“Even though I didn’t really have anything else to do, it was kind of hard to find the motivation still to do the school stuff,” Chesley said.

Connelly added that she found not being able to go to the Huddle or library to study made classes more difficult. And missing that dedicated space for homework left her feeling overwhelmed. 

Social life and the bubble mentality

Balancing a social life with COVID-19 concerns is especially hard, according to students.

Johnson, a junior studying communication disorders and special education, said she’s avoided crowded restaurants and bars and sees fewer people, but there’s some natural tension with friends who don’t take as many precautions.

Tupper said he’s definitely seen a link between house parties Saturday and increased coronavirus implications on Wednesday. He added that off-campus housing has faster spread.

Instead of attending large gatherings, some students stick to a central group of buddies to relax with. The “bubble” mentality is a justification many students, including Johnson, Rose, Chesley and Connelly, use to define safe social activities.

For Rose, it’s a core group of three friends she can spend time with.

“If one of us get’s COVID, we’re all going down,” Rose said. They prefer watching movies in Granskou or attending UBG events. They wear masks in the dorm hallways and clean doorknobs.

Tupper said the varying sizes of students’ bubbles means there isn’t really a smooth trend between the number of active cases and the number of quarantined students.

Wendt, who’s a transfer student, said the pandemic has added an extra challenge to being the “new kid.” While other juniors are sticking to their bubble of friends, she’s looking to make new ones.

“There’s less events that I could’ve gone to to make friends, and it’s kind of hard to invite somebody to do anything,” Wendt said.

Chesley, a Tuve Viking Advisor, said face-to-face connections with his residents are lacking because of quarantined students and health concerns. Most of the socializing and checking in he does with his floor is over email, Zoom or Google Forms.

From his floor’s mid-semester check-in, he said he learned that social interactions have been more difficult for the freshmen especially.

COVID-19 has dramatically shifted the lifestyle of Augustana students, and now every week becomes an obstacle course of uncertainty. Perhaps this semester tacks on another core value to Augustana’s set: resilience.

  1. Excellent story, Jeni. Thank you.

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