- As colleges begin to reopen for the fall semester, schools are adjusting to the “new normal” of social distancing guidelines.
- At Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first-year students were invited to live on campus for the fall semester.
- Janet Hernandez, a freshman, moved from her hometown of Miami, Florida into first-year residence Hurlbut Hall.
- Here’s what her semester has looked like so far.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When freshman Janet Hernandez first arrived at Harvard University on August 29, her most important destination was the science centre. That was where, in a large white tent, she got tested for the coronavirus for the first time.
After she left, she entered into what the school calls “phase one” of quarantine: She wasn’t allowed to leave her room for 24 hours or until she tested negative, whichever came first. She said that the only reason students could leave their rooms during phase one was if they had a hallway bathroom.
Once she tested negative, she entered phase two: She was now allowed out for 30-minute walks and could pick up mail and takeout from the dining hall.
And, now that she’s tested negative three times, she’s entered phase three. She can hang out in groups of five, and walk around campus unrestricted.
In July, Harvard announced its reopening plan. Classes would remain completely remote, but 40% of its undergraduates could return to campus.
For the fall semester, first-year students were invited to return, along with students “who may not be able to learn successfully in their current home learning environment”; if the school continues to remain at 40% density, the senior class will be invited to campus for the spring.
Ultimately, the school anticipated that, based on the number of students who opted to return, only about 25% would return to campus.
“I feel like it’s really surpassed my expectations,” Hernandez said. “I was talking to a couple of students about this yesterday, and I feel like we really like made the best out of the situation. And it kind of is a little bit sucky to say, but it is the new normal.”
Here’s what Hernadez’s experience at Harvard has been like during the pandemic.
Harvard University did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Hernandez, 18, is from Miami, Florida. She’s still deciding whether she wants to concentrate in government or economics, and is planning on a secondary in ethnic migration and rights.
“Before COVID, I definitely saw Harvard being very different,” Hernandez said. “I was looking forward to being in classrooms and socialising with professors and having seminars where you could actually get to know a person one-on-one.”
But she said that, while those things aren’t possible right now, “virtual Harvard” has still been better than she anticipated.
“We’re just kind of, in the worst or best way, sucking it up,” Hernandez said. This is the “new reality” for at least the next semester.
“[We’re] compensating for … the experiences that we’re missing and stuff like that with the idea of, we’re just freshmen, we still have three more years to experience things.”
On move-in day, Hernandez got what she calls a COVID care package from Harvard.
“We got 100 masks, hand sanitizer, our Harvard IDs, and keys,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez travelled from her hometown of Miami to Cambridge. All non-international first-year students were invited to live on campus for the fall, although CNN reports that around 20% of incoming freshmen opted to defer.
Upon first arriving on campus, Hernandez was tested in the ‘big white tents’ the school set up.
Hernandez took a video of herself going in to get tested at the “big white tent.” Now, students receive kits for unmonitored testing, she told Business Insider. Once she’s taken the test in her dorm room, there are bins around campus where she can drop them off for processing.
In its return to campus updates, Harvard University Health Services wrote that students living on campus should expect to be tested every three days.
When Hernandez first arrived and got tested, she was given a “big bag of food” for the next 24 hours.
More food was also delivered the morning after the 24 hours were up. Hernandez said that the quarantine meals were, in her opinion, actually better than the dining hall fare she gets now. Some of the quarantine options included rosemary and garlic roasted chicken, and tempeh stiry-fry.
“I think that the ones that they gave us in the bag, they were really trying to impress us,” she said.
In August, NYU students took to posting online – particularly on TikTok – about their school-provided quarantine meals. As Insider’s Monica Humphries reported, students said that the meals there sometimes did not follow dietary restrictions, showed up after the set delivery hours, or sometimes didn’t show up at all.
Now Hernandez can get takeout from the Annenberg dining hall, which is open to freshmen.
Hernandez and the other freshmen get their food from Annenberg, while older students living in upperclassmen housing get their meals from their in-residence dining halls.
As of right now, the dining hall hasn’t opened up its seating, although Harvard Dining Services said in July that it hopes to eventually open for limited seating. Hernandez said that students are expecting an update soon.
“We have set times when we can go depending on our ‘yard,’ and markings on the floor to facilitate social distancing,” Hernandez said.
Harvard Yard has become a prime location for a picnic.
Harvard Yard – probably the most famous spot on campus – has become a prime location for a picnic. Hernandez said that small outdoor gatherings have become emblematic of the new college social life.
“I think that overall, with COVID, you have very intimate settings of friends, instead of the larger, maybe less intimate, gatherings that we’re used to in college,” she said. “So it really forces you to really get to know some people in a closer setting, not doing maybe as fun things, but really having those genuine conversations that I feel like a lot of us came to Harvard for.”
And, now that Hernandez is in phase three quarantine, where she can move around campus unrestricted and hang out in groups of five, she can try some of the local dining establishments with friends.
“I finally had the opportunity to explore some of the food around Cambridge,” Hernandez said. “So that felt like a little slice of normalcy, for me at least, being able to hit up a friend and be like, ‘Hey, do you want to eat at Tatte Bakery?'”
She also enjoys asking friends to come grab coffee with her before they attend virtual class.
Widener Library, the school’s “flagship library,” has become a hub for outdoor socially distanced social life.
Hernandez said that convening on the Widener steps has become like a “tradition” for this year’s Harvard freshmen.
“There’s kind of like a catchphrase of, ‘Meet at Widener,'” Hernandez said. “And so people just sit on the steps and just hang out, socially distant.”
In terms of social life, Hernandez said that the freshmen are still just “figuring it out.”
“It’s super hard being a college student right now because of the fact that you want to go out, you want to be social. For a lot of people this is the first time that they’re away from their parents,” Hernandez said. “And all of a sudden you kind of put brakes on like, ‘Hey, you can’t hang out in a large group. You can’t be in each other’s dorms. While on campus, you can’t be less than six feet apart.”
Hernandez is living in Hurlbut Hall, a freshman dorm. Hernandez calls into all of her classes from her dorm room, which she said has led to some Zoom fatigue.
“You’re in your dorm 90% of the time, you’re sitting in front of your computer screen. There are distractions all around you, so it is pretty difficult to concentrate sometimes, even as engaging as the courses may be at Harvard,” Hernandez said.
But she said that remote courses have been very different – in a positive way – from what she experienced during her last months of high school.
“When COVID hit, everybody was kind of just scrambling to make stuff work in the last few months of school,” Hernandez said. “This has been planned out and organised. Professors are very good with communicating, with doing their lectures, adjusting to time zones.”
Hernandez said that she’s been enjoying going for runs by the Charles River. Overall, while her college experience has been pretty different from pre-pandemic times, she thinks that Harvard has been a standout in its reopening efforts.
“I hope that Harvard can be kind of a model for how colleges can deal with COVID and still have in-person classes,” Hernandez said. “Because I do feel bad for a lot of my friends who are doing completely remote from their houses.”
And, while there have been reports of college students at schools throwing parties, with 11 freshmen at nearby Northeastern suspended for partying, Hernandez said that there’s been a big “misconception” that all college students are out partying “and trying to get COVID.”
“That’s not true for all schools and for all people,” Hernandez said. “For the most part, I feel like we’re all doing our part to make sure that we can stay on campus. I feel like that’s the main thing: You don’t want to be sent home. So that’s the real big motivator. “