Just one week into the Fall semester, JMU announced that all classes will go online for the next month, and residents on campus are being sent home. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn caught up with some of those students.
[Sound of bell ringing]
It’s 4 pm, and the quad in front of Wilson Hall looks as it normally would on a Saturday afternoon. Students are hanging out, studying, and playing frisbee. But over at the residence halls, it looks more like the end of the semester than the beginning.
[Sounds of people moving]
James Madison University made it one week into the Fall semester before an overwhelming number of positive COVID-19 cases among the student body forced the university to cancel all in-person classes and pivot online for at least the next month.
The decision also means that most students living on campus must return home until then. For many freshmen, such as Riley Brown, that meant having to leave their dorms almost as soon as they arrived.
BROWN: I just started getting used to college classes and now it's all changing, going back home to do it. And like I just started meeting people and getting used to living here and now it's all just getting uprooted and changing again.
[Sound of boxes being loaded into a vehicle]
As she helped her parents load a trailer parked outside of her dorm at Chappelear Hall, she said the university’s decision was inevitable.
BROWN: I’m pretty bummed about it, but I think everyone saw it coming. We just didn’t think it was going to happen so soon.
Once Brown returns to her parent’s home in Baltimore, she – like all other students moving off campus – will have to quarantine for two weeks to prevent an outbreak in her hometown. Public health experts have discouraged universities from sending students home for that very reason.
Some other students, such as Freshman Jordan Harris, have parents who are immunocompromised.
HARRIS: My dad just got over leukemia. He had a bone marrow transplant a few months ago, so I don’t think it would be safe to go home right away. So we’re going to quarantine a little, and then I think we’re going to get tested before I actually go back to my family.
She and Brown became friends in the short time they’ve lived in the same hall and will stay with Brown’s family until it’s safe to go back to her house in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
HARRIS: I think we're going to get tested in a week and see what happens there, but like, even after I go home, I'm still gonna try and stay away for a little bit.
Freshman Paige Middleton is planning to fly back to her home in New Jersey on Monday. After she and her peers lost their last few months of high school to the pandemic, suddenly having to leave campus in her first year of college dealt another blow.
MIDDLETON: We kinda got our senior year taken away from us, so I was really excited to be a freshman here, and this has always been my dream school since my junior year of high school. So, it was kind of sad, you know, but I think it's like the safest option right now.
As a Health Sciences major on track to JMU’s Physician Assistant program, she felt the university could have handled the beginning of the semester differently.
MIDDLETON: I kind of wish when we arrived on campus, we were kind of either all tested or we all quarantine for two weeks. We were kind of just sent here and like anybody could have brought it here and just spread it around.
As of Sunday, the COVID-19 dashboard published by The Breeze, JMU's student paper, showed 772 positive student cases. Only 11 of the 143 quarantine beds sanctioned by the university remain open.
Certain on-campus services such as the dining halls and libraries will still operate through September, and JMU also gave students the option to apply to stay in their dorms.
Freshman Annie McGowan took the university up on its offer. Her home in Fort Mill, South Carolina is five and a half hours away and, like Harris, McGowan doesn’t want to endanger her parents.
MCGOWAN: My dad has preexisting conditions. He has like heart issues. So if he got COVID or kind of be, it would be really bad for him to get it. So I just want to make sure that I don't have it for at least two weeks, and then I can think about going home. I have to plan that out with my parents, get them to come up here. They both have full time jobs. So like, that's very stressful on them to take two days to come up here.
JMU’s withdrawal deadline has been extended to October 10, with a contingent plan to return to in-person classes on October 5. According to McGowan, most of her classmates aren’t holding their breath.
MCGOWAN: I feel like if they bring us back on campus, you're just going to have another surge again, of cases. And then we're just going to be back at square one, like where we started. So that's what I've been hearing a lot. I don't think it's going to happen. I think we’ll be back maybe for week and then they’ll be like “Psych! Go home.”
As with all things impacted by COVID, only time will tell.