What's it like to live in a college dorm under COVID-19? It's a lot lonelier

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Friday, October 16, 2020
College students describe lonely dorm life during pandemic
College life is not what it used to be. The pandemic has made living in dorms a lot lonelier for students, who must undergo frequent COVID-19 testing and face isolation if they are infected.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (KGO) -- As the father of two daughters in college, this past summer was full of mixed emotions.

Both Julia and Sofía are studying at UC San Diego, which announced early on that it would allow students to live in college dorms.

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At first, I fully backed the decision of them moving back to campus from their home in the Bay Area. UCSD has a medical center nearby and is at the forefront of medical research. If my daughters were to get sick, I figured they would receive top notch medical treatment.

Then, as students started to go back to college across the country, I started to see reports of COVID-19 outbreaks on university campuses. Doubt started to set in about whether it was the right decision to let my daughters return to campus for the fall quarter.

Julia was starting her senior year and as a mechanical engineering major she had to work on her senior project. I figured that was a good reason for her to move back to campus.

My other daughter, Sofía, was starting her sophomore year. She is also a mechanical engineering major, but last spring when classes went online she could not take a required lab class. That class was being offered in-person this fall. That was another good reason to move into the dorms.

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As colleges and universities are dealing with the coronavirus outbreaks on campuses, the CDC announced a new approach that could help prevent or reduce the transmission.

Then, I saw news of an outbreak at San Diego State. A few weeks into the school year, there have been more than 1,0000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students. In San Diego County, young adults between 20 and 29 years old make up 25% of COVID-19 cases.

What would happen at UCSD? My doubts grew stronger, but my daughters felt it would be safe and it was their decision to move back.

So, on a Friday in late September, we loaded up a rental van and drove eight hours from the Bay Area to San Diego. Move-in day was Saturday. There was excitement and uncertainty.

"I am not expecting much. I assume I will just have classes in my dorm," said Julia as I questioned her on Saturday morning about her expectations.

Sofía admitted to more uneasiness.

"I'm excited but a little bit nervous. It's going to be really different from last year," Sofía told me.

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The difference was evident from the moment we drove into campus.

The first stop was to get a COVID-19 test for each one of them. They both were negative for coronavirus.

Once they moved into their dorms, they were required to keep their mask on at all times, unless they were in their room alone. If they went into the kitchen or living room, they had to keep their mask on until they got a second COVID-19 test two weeks later that confirmed they were negative a second time.

They agreed with the safety measure, but probably didn't expect the impact it would have on their relationship with their new roommates.

"Every time we see each other we run away. We just kind of wave fast and run to put our mask on. And we feel weird knocking on each other's door because we are not supposed to be near each other for the first two weeks," said Sofía when I checked in on them a week after they moved in.

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Hopefully that will change. Sofía developed a strong friendship with her roommates last year. Unfortunately, none of them moved back to campus this fall. Julia also has a new set of roommates. Her friends from last year are all living off campus.

UC San Diego reported 9,655 students are living on student housing this fall. There were more than 15,000 students on campus last fall, so it is a big drop.

But that number is much larger than other UC campuses. UC Berkeley only allowed about 2,000 students to live on campus.

Besides getting tested every two weeks, students must also fill out a daily questionnaire about their health. UC San Diego is testing out a new a smartphone app that relies on bluetooth to lets students know if they have been in contact with someone who is infected.

Campus life has been altered. Sofía reports there are much fewer students in the dining rooms. Most students are taking advantage of the nice weather and eating their meals outside, which makes the campus a little livelier than usual.

RELATED: Bay Area college students forced to pay rent while away for remote learning

Welcome Week was more subdued. The communal activities that lets student bond were all done over Zoom. Neither of my daughters joined in. Homecoming is next week. It will be over Zoom as well.

Both of my daughters have met up with friends and socialized outdoors. but study groups are non-existent for now. Sofía's lab class was changed to online, so she has no in-person classes anymore.

They spend most of their time in their dorms, somewhat isolated.

Hopefully that will change as they are given more freedom to socialize with their roommates.

Neither has regrets about moving to campus. They did not like converting their home or their bedroom into a classroom. Taking classes from their dorm room has a different feel, like they moved away to study.

"It's less like I need the space. This is where it feels like I have to study," explained Julia.

Moving away also means there will be more excitement about coming home for Thanksgiving and Winter Break. Hopefully there won't be any COVID-19 outbreaks that will modify those plans.

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