Grace Mungle is glad she and her roommates at Ball State University in Indiana spent some time this summer redecorating their dining room before moving in. They’ve logged many hours at the sleek black table this fall: within days of returning to campus in mid-August, Mungle, 20, and all four of her roommates tested positive for the coronavirus. She’d only attended an in-person class once, her speech and audiology lecture. Then she and her roommates started their quarantine for the duration of their collective illnesses, and the table is where they’ve eaten all their meals and spent hours taking virtual classes and doing homework together, a five-person quarantine pod. At night, they’re running through old TV shows: Hannah Montana, Lizzie McGuire. It’s not quite the junior year they had in mind.
“I had not been to a party, and I still got it,” Mungle said over the phone, over a week into her quarantine. Her symptoms—mostly bad headaches and congestion—were abating. But her frustration with her college, and the situation that thousands of students across the country are dealing with, was not fading quite so quickly. “I’m really just frustrated with how Ball State handled the whole situation with COVID. They didn’t do anything to help us, to help prevent this,” she said. (Ball State did not respond to request for comment.)
Since colleges and universities restarted classes for the fall semester in August and September, thousands of new COVID-19 cases have been reported, with outbreaks spreading from many campus activities. The University of Alabama reported well over 2,000. The University of South Carolina reported over 2,000 as well. The small town of Pullman, Wash., home to Washington State University, briefly claimed one of the country’s highest positive rates as it edged towards 1,000 cases. (By the second week of September, it was down to number two.) This is a shift from last spring, when young people were considered a demographic at low risk for contracting COVID-19. Now, 23% of all positive COVID-19 tests in the U.S. are young people. In the last three weeks alone, the cases for the group aged 18 to 29 increased 10%—nearly 100,00 new cases, more than any other group.
Part of this increase is due to expanded testing: as students returned to campuses, their schools made it easier—sometimes mandatory—to check their COVID status. But the rising numbers are also due in part to the unchanged conditions of college life: indoor classrooms, basement parties, shared housing—in short, everything that makes social distancing difficult.
Over a dozen students contacted by TIME shared varying levels of concern about their campus experiences, but nearly all seemed resigned to a year of limited education, wasted finances and ongoing health risks. And as the long-term effects of the coronavirus—both on the health of our population and the economy—remain unknown, they also represent a generation with a future filled with uncertainty.
Clemson University sophomore Elizabeth Rew’s roommates pose alongside a charcuterie board they made together; A drawing by Temple university student Kyle Caruthers of his living space, including his roommate, a self portrait, and the street he lives on; Caruthers and a friend, wearing masks, document a lounging cat
Courtesy Elizabeth Rew; Courtesy Kyle Caruthers (2)
Kyle Caruthers, 20, transferred to Temple University halfway through college: he’s studying photography, and joined their specialized studio art program. He moved into an off-campus apartment with two fellow art students in mid-August, and attended his first drawing class in person—with masks on, of course. “When we started our courses, it wasn’t as bad as we thought,” he said. But that was week one. By week two, the campus shut down following a case spike, and Caruthers’s art classes were relegated to online learning. “It’s kind of doomed,” he says of the rest of his semester.
He and his roommates created a studio space in their living room, making the best of their situation. But he is disappointed in the college. “They should have not opened up campus to begin with,” he said. “We’re just not getting a thorough and honest explanation.” An…