Courtesy of Isabelle Robinson
- Isabelle Robinson is a sophomore at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City.
- She was a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February 2018 when a former student killed 17 students and staff members. A week and a half later, Robinson and her friends were expected to be back in class.
- As panic about the coronavirus outbreak grew, Barnard College encouraged students to leave on-campus housing as soon as they could.
- Robinson described the unparalleled "chaos" that she has now experienced twice — and the long-term effects it can have on students.
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In February of my senior year, a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 14 students and three employees. My classmates and I were summarily given a week and a half off of school to collect ourselves. Then, after a steady stream of vigils, burials, and funeral receptions, it was time to go back.
We went back, but the learning didn't exactly continue. I don't blame my teachers for this in the slightest — it is no easy feat to explain calculus or the Electoral College to a class of over 25 traumatized students when you have also been traumatized. To this day, I have never read the second half of "Frankenstein," nor did I bother studying for my AP exams. By late May, my friends and I were cutting class as often as we could, taking refuge in the classrooms of teachers who understood that we had little to no brain capacity left for final projects. We had far more important things on our minds.
Just over two years later, there is a new epidemic to worry about, and it's not the ever-increasing rate of gun violence. With the rapid outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, thousands of students have had their way of life and their studies radically disrupted by evacuations and quarantines.
I'm one of them — and I cannot help but notice the subtle but alarming similarities that connect these events. Once again, our government and many of our schools have failed us, and students will suffer as a result. And when students suffer, there is only so much time and energy left over to learn.
Courtesy of Isabelle Robinson
Harvard University was one of the first institutions to announce a policy of mandatory evacuation in response to COVID-19. Students — including first-generation and low-income students who had relied on the university for meals, housing, and work-study — were given just five days to pack all their belongings and leave campus for the rest of the semester. For many, this was a crippling expense; for others, it was simply impossible.
The rest of the Ivy League was soon to follow: Students at Yale were given only four days to vacate campus, the University of Pennsylvania gave students five days, and my own Barnard College of Columbia University followed suit in urging students to depart as soon as possible — after we were initially told that we could return for our possessions after spring break.
The havoc this announcement wreaked was unparalleled. Scrambling students posted on Facebook begging those who were still on campus to pack up their dorms to be eligible for a housing refund. The few students allowed to remain on campus pleaded with others to donate their surplus food items to local food pantries supporting students facing meal insecurity.
It was chaos. It still is chaos — many students are still processing the fact that they have lost their housing, their main source of income, their internet access, and much of their support system for the rest of the semester. Others have immunocompromised family members who are at a higher risk of getting seriously ill from the virus, who they will have to care for if they fall ill. What mental energy does this leave for studying, taking exams, and participating in class?
The most frustrating thing about this situation is that it did not have to unfold this way. Just as the government might have averted the violence that occurred at my high school by implementing policies to prevent gun violence, the escalation of the COVID-19 outbreak could have been impeded by taking the protective measures advocated by medical professionals as early as late January. If the Food and Drug Administration had taken action earlier, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been more flexible, if testing had been made readily available, there's no telling how many deaths could have been prevented — and how many lives wouldn't have needlessly been thrown into disarray.
The federal government has largely failed to lead the way in this time of crisis, and numerous universities, including those considered the best in the nation, have stumbled as well. Rather than remaining calm, they initiated policies of mass removal that were equal parts dangerous — was it really the best idea to send thousands of students away on cross-country flights during a pandemic? — and inequitable.
After an elongated spring break, online classes will begin for thousands of university students who have suddenly found themselves in their childhood bedrooms, in their emptied residence halls, or crashing on a charitable alumnus' couch. I, however, have the good(ish) fortune of having experienced something like this before. I know what it's like to reenter learning after a horrifying turn of events, glassy-eyed and exhausted. I know what it's like to not be able to think about anything but what life was and no longer can be.
Courtesy of Isabelle Robinson
However, one thing has changed since I was 17 and counting the days until graduation. I have learned from my Barnard and Columbia classmates that if students make enough noise, occasionally the administration will hear us. Already, students across the country have petitioned their universities to switch to mandatory pass/D/fail grading to make the semester more equitable for those coping with a variety of difficult situations. Some have even succeeded: After initially switching to an opt-in pass/fail system, Harvard Law implemented mandatory pass/fail grading in response to a letter expressing student concerns. Elle Woods would be proud.
Instances like this are what give me hope during this crisis: Despite the failures of administrative and government bureaucracy, we students care enough about each other to advocate for the common good and salvage the learning left to be done. After all, that's all we really can do. Perhaps we will come out of this more united than we were before.
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