#parent | #kids | Marist, Mount St. Mary, Vassar, New Paltz students share challenges | #sextrafficing | #childsaftey

Joe Gjidoda called it “traumatic,” an unshakable feeling of the walls closing in and pillars of his foundation crumbling.

His grandmother was rushed from their Millbrook home to a hospital, suffering the acute symptoms of what was revealed to be COVID-19. She died days later in February. 

While the family grieved and rallied around his grandfather, who also tested positive, Gjidoda’s dad became critically ill, having been infected by his parents. His breathing difficulties quickly worsened and he, too, was brought to a hospital, and diagnosed with COVID-19 pneumonia.

As the virus attacked his lungs, and he fought for his life for more than a month, it was almost impossible for his son to avoid the grim thoughts.

That sadness, compounded by the stress, weighed heavily on the 19-year-old as he began his second semester at Marist College.

“I started the semester losing my grandma and almost losing my dad,” said Gjidoda, whose father did survive after five harrowing weeks in the hospital. “It was a difficult time. It was painful.”

While shouldering that emotional burden, the freshman spent hours each day staring at a laptop monitor for his online classes, then several more hours in the same position, trying to make sense of the intricate coding for his computer science courses.

As a commuter student to the Poughkeepsie school, Gjidoda didn’t have roommates to lean on, just his mourning relatives to commiserate with, and the college campus no longer was the social setting most have known.

In a normal year, perhaps, he would have had daily activities and interaction on a bustling compound to offer a temporary distraction. In a normal year, perhaps, he might’ve had friends around to whom he could vent.

But these last 15 months, of course, have been far from normal.

The past year, Mount Saint Mary College sophomore Cat Halpin said, “is one our kids will read about in textbooks and ask if it really happened.”

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The pandemic created a bizarre and uniquely challenging year for most, and it significantly altered the college experience.

Absent was the typical interaction between young adults on campus, replaced in many cases by remote learning. Most of the tests taken since autumn called for a nasal swab instead of a pencil. Masks were mandated, parties were banned, conferencing apps became lecture halls, distancing was required in the classrooms that were in use and, with all that, a feeling of emotional distance.

Students at five Hudson Valley colleges — Marist, Mount Saint Mary, Pace University, SUNY New Paltz and Vassar College — shared their experiences from what was a trying year.

These were differing perspectives, ranging from graduating seniors who juxtaposed this year to their previous three, athletes whose seasons were compromised, and freshmen whose image of college life met with a reality that better resembled an abstract work.

“It definitely wasn’t what anyone expected a college year to be like, especially not being able to hang out in the dorms,” said Nina Sims, a Hopewell Junction native who graduated New Paltz earlier this month. “Eating most of your meals alone in your room, not being able to socialize much.

“But, when you think about everything that’s happened, I’m thankful that we got through the year safely.”

Aleya Corretjer, a junior at Pace, said it was “especially tough” on freshmen, who often already have a hard time getting comfortable in college.

The schools operated with similar safety protocols, but some applied additional measures. Vassar College closed its campus to visitors and limited how often, and to where, students could leave. Pace installed an ID scanner at its entrance in an attempt to ensure only students and employees were present.

As well, the schools enforced rules against gatherings, violations for which were punishable by suspension or even removal from the campus.

Marist, in August, suspended two groups of students for infractions related to off-campus parties. Vassar ordered one student to leave the campus and study remotely for the entire fall semester. Athletes, Sims said, were threatened with possible removal from their teams.

To help offset the restrictions, some of the colleges organized on-campus events such as art exhibits and makeshift music concerts, which Vassar freshman Sufana Noorwez said, “gave people a chance to unwind.”

The protocols weren’t always enough. While many schools saw a spike in cases upon students’ return from winter break, Marist had an outbreak in which more than 12% of its roughly 4,800 students tested positive, requiring the school to lock down most aspects of its campus for around a month, adding to the existing isolation.

Most schools, though, were able to navigate positive cases without adding restrictions, and testing capacity and contact tracing resources increased as the year went on.

And, after cancelling commencement ceremonies last spring, the schools this month and next weekend each will be able to hold in-person celebrations to conclude a most unusual year.

For those who aren’t crossing a stage in a cap and gown, hopes are high for September to bring a return to normalcy. The rising sophomores are eager to find out what that will be like.

Gjidoda’s three older siblings each raved to him about their college experience during his senior year at Millbrook High School.

“They told me how much fun it would be and how easily they made friends,” he said. “They gave me tips that aren’t really (applicable) now, like, ‘Just go up to someone in the dining hall and say, ‘Hi, can I have your number?’ Everyone feels a little awkward this year and you’re hesitant to just approach a stranger. Everyone is worried about what the other person might have.”

Tests, textbooks and rulebooks

Noorwez was finishing the 12th grade in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts when the pandemic hit. She readied herself mentally for what she figured would be a “weird” freshman year.

“We’d been living with COVID for several months by the time I moved in,” the 19-year-old said, “so I expected things to be different. I knew the rules would be strict.” 

Vassar began the fall semester in a closed-campus model with visitors barred from entry. Travel out of state for students, Noorwez said, was limited to family emergencies.

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Corretjer grew up in Thiells, only 25 miles from Pace’s Pleasantville campus, so there always was the temptation to make trips home.

“But,” she said, “if you decided to go home and spend a weekend, for example, you’d have to take a PCR test before you could get back on campus.”

COVID testing was routine at the area colleges, most of them requiring students to test at least once every 14 days. Athletes were tested more frequently, in some cases, three or more times in a week.

At Marist, senior Kelly George said, a negative test result was necessary to enter the buildings.

“If you had an in-person class in the fall, they would randomly select you to get tested every couple weeks,” Sims said of New Paltz. “You’d get a text saying you have to report. By spring, if you had to be on campus for any reason, you were tested once a week.”

Initially, Sims said, students would wait anxiously to see if they’d receive a phone call from the lab regarding their results. No call meant good news. Eventually, the school set up an online dashboard that archived test results and related information.

Mount Saint Mary and Vassar created smartphone apps that scheduled tests and kept users abreast of the positive cases on campus. The schools were also among those that designated buildings to house quarantining students.

Masks were required, particularly indoors, and couldn’t be removed in classrooms.

“You’d have to check in with security and fill out a questionnaire to get on campus,” Cat Halpin said. She and her twin, Carrie, are Nursing majors at The Mount. “‘Do you have any symptoms? Have you been exposed to someone who tested positive?’”

Occupancy of classrooms was limited and markers were placed throughout the buildings as a reminder to socially distance. Gjidoda said several classes at Marist were moved to larger rooms where “at least two chairs” were between each student.

The Vassar cafeteria last fall provided only grab-and-go items and, at all the schools, students were encouraged to dine in their rooms. All the schools discouraged students from congregating with anyone outside their living circle, as in roommates or teammates.

The outbreak at Marist served as a reminder to students why those rules were established. The college had 665 people, including 10 employees, test positive this spring, with the fast spread of the virus attributed by health officials to a variant strain. In-person classes, athletic facilities and the dining hall were closed for weeks, with students encouraged to remain in their rooms. 

“That was crazy!” said George, a senior Communications major who lived in an apartment off campus. “It was mostly on-campus students, but you hear a big number like that and it’s kind of frightening.”

George was a lacrosse player whose 2020 season was cut short by the cancellation, then her senior campaign was limited to eight games because of the spike on campus. The bulk of the school’s spring sports schedule was wiped out.

“It (stunk) to have the pause affect sports like that, and I know everyone was frustrated,” the Long Island native said, “but safety has to be the priority with this. You’re upset at first, but you understand.”

The State University of New York system had cancelled its fall and winter sports seasons, but New Paltz did have close to a complete spring when athletics resumed. Corretjer said Pace had one positive case on her women’s lacrosse team, but it was contained and cost them only a game.

New Paltz held a series of small, abbreviated graduation ceremonies over two weeks this month, grouping seniors together one weekend and 2020 graduates the following week.

That, Sims said, was “bittersweet.” It wasn’t the pomp and circumstance graduates have come to expect but, she said, “We have to realize that we’re fortunate. The seniors last year didn’t get anything.”

A social study of separation

Students interviewed said most people they came across were receptive to the guidelines and, even if annoyed, followed the rules.

“I didn’t get a chance to explore the area much or interact with as many people,” Noorwez said, “but I think the limitations were a reasonable request, given the circumstances.”

Still, each admitted the diminished campus atmosphere was somewhat of a downer.

Gone were the crowded quads and busy hallways, and essentially forbidden were the group hangouts between classes. Out of the question, for most, were dorm parties.

Sims said that, upon return to campus last fall, each New Paltz student was given a handbook with rules and detailed instructions, including how to properly wear a mask, along with a listing of consequences for protocol violations. Being caught consorting with a group of non-roommates was punishable by suspension.

A figurative bubble was created around the student-athletes as online classes were encouraged to reduce the risk of exposure. Most of them weren’t permitted to have extended contact with anyone besides teammates and athletic staff.

Erin Fox, for example, is a freshman on the Marist women’s basketball team. She grew up with Gjidoda and the two are close, but their interaction at school this year was limited.

Text messages and video chats were utilized more than ever, students said.

As well, athletes were tested at least twice a week, in addition to the random bi-weekly testing all students submitted to. Noorwez is a member of the Vassar women’s golf team and, she said, they often were tested once more a day before competition.

As a break from the monotony this spring, New Paltz held socially-distant athletic competitions for students, including a kickball tournament. Marist brought in food trucks on weekends, as did Vassar, which also held a plant sale and coral reef expo, among other events.

George lauded her college for those efforts and said none of the safety requirements “felt like too much,” but admitted, “it still felt strange in comparison to the years before.”

Gjidoda took four courses this semester, each of which were hybrid classes. There would be an in-person lecture one day accompanied by an online session. After lectures, he said, students seldom spoke and would quickly go their separate ways.

“I have my family, and that’s most important,” he said, “but it was a little frustrating not being able to really build friendships with classmates. Not just for hanging out, but even for help with the work. Sometimes you’d just want to ask someone after class, ‘Hey, did you get all that?’”

Cat Halpin said she has read and heard that this year, given the relative isolation, “put a strain on a lot of people’s mental health.

“I think it’s important to take breaks routinely, get away from the computer,” she said. “Talk to your parents, call friends, go outside — do things that feel normal. Carrie and I are lucky that we have each other, and we’d schedule breaks together and just go for walks.”

The masks, especially during the winter with everyone bundled up, made for some lighthearted moments, George said.

There were several instances in which she found herself staring at someone, or vice versa, and believing it to be a person she knew, but not certain enough to call out to them.

“You’d be trying to make out as many features as you can, and you’re hesitant to say their name because you’re thinking, ‘It’ll be awkward if that’s not her,’” she said with a chuckle. “You just end up looking at each other for a couple seconds. Then you both walk away like, ‘Yeah, it probably was them.’”

Pass/fail for remote learning

The merits of remote learning were a polarizing subject. In most cases, the students’ opinions were shaped by its perceived effectiveness pertaining to their courses.

“I love it,” said Corretjer, a 20-year-old. “I adapted pretty well to it and had my two best (grade point averages) ever in the fall and spring. I went from a 3.4 to getting 4.0 in both semesters.”

Each of her four classes this spring was taken remotely. But, as a Computer Science major, she is accustomed to staring at a laptop for several hours. As well, the ability to record and replay lectures was a “huge plus” for studying.

“I didn’t have to keep up with the professor’s pace or worry that I missed something,” she said. “If I didn’t understand, I could keep rewinding until I got it.”

That differs, of course, for the majors that require hands-on work and demonstration.

In a normal year, the Halpin sisters said, the Nursing program would have had them working in a local nursing home to gain “clinical experience.” That was not possible, given strict restrictions on visitors in nursing homes, although Mount Saint Mary still hosted in-person nursing and microbiology labs.

“Hands-on experience is obviously crucial in the process of becoming a nurse,” said Carrie Halpin, a Millbrook native. “It felt like we were missing out on practicing the skills we need. Not being able to get into clinicals this semester, we also didn’t get the human interaction with patients, which is so important.”

For Sims, a softball player, all five of her classes this spring were remote, three of which were asynchronous. She preferred the “structure of a traditional classroom,” but did enjoy the “freedom” of online courses.

New Paltz, she said, allowed each professor to determine the setup of their class and most of them were done remotely, including a roommate’s biology courses.

“The advantage was getting stuff done on my own time and not having to rush to a classroom,” the Psychology major said. “There were times I’d be in class while folding laundry or making breakfast.”

That works well for some students, Cat Halpin said, but others — herself included — work better in the presence of a teacher and classmates. Typically an A-minus student, she said, her grades dipped mostly to Bs and Cs last fall.

“I know for a lot of people,” she said, “it’s harder to stay focused and retain as much information when Zoom is your classroom.”

Vaccinations and the fall

Each of the students expressed degrees of optimism about a relative return to normalcy, or steps toward it, this upcoming fall. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, earlier this month, announced the SUNY and CUNY boards will require proof of vaccination from students attending in-person classes this fall. He also encouraged private colleges to adopt similar guidelines. Vassar announced its intention to require vaccinations before Cuomo’s announcement.

Noorwez said she is in full support of that and was vehement in her stance, saying citizens have a “moral obligation” to get vaccinated.

“It’s widely available to most people and it’s the least resource-intensive way to slow the pandemic,” the freshman said. Her major is undeclared, but she is considering Biochemistry. “College students, in most cases, will recover from it and be okay, but we have a duty to society. You don’t want to spread it to a population that might not recover as well as we can.”

Gjidoda and his family were vaccinated, after their frightening experiences. Still, he said, it’s unfair for colleges to mandate the vaccine for students and staff.

“It’s controversial for a lot of people and I don’t think you should force them,” he said. “After what we went through, my family and I wanted to get vaccinated, and I encourage people to get it. But you can’t demand it.”

The Halpin sisters said they took their second doses two weeks ago. As nursing students, they said, they were eager because it creates for them at least the possibility of working with patients next semester.

“You feel like you’re contributing to getting back to a normal society,” Cat Halpin said. “Once most people are vaccinated and feel safe, I’m in support of going back to in-person learning and having schools feel like school again. I want to see everyone again.”

Stephen Haynes: shaynes@poughkeepsiejournal.com, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4

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