Scarcely over a year ago, the world shut down. COVID-19 took us from close socialization on a daily basis to remaining in our homes for months on end, only leaving when necessary. Now, as vaccines are being made more widely available, there’s talk of society opening back up.
As for JMU, an email was sent to the university’s community March 24 informing students and faculty of the plan to hold fall classes fully in person. But after a year of online and socially distanced hybrid classes, mask-wearing and keeping within the recommended groups of 10 or less, this is far from the bright exclamation it seems.
Going from social isolation on a college campus to the prospect of sitting in a full auditorium of students is frightening — not exciting. While those at the top seem eager to get life back on track to how it was previously, in that process, they’re ignoring the glaring issue at hand: Things can’t just go back to normal.
Quarantine demanded that everyday life be reinvented with as little social interaction as possible, and for the last year, that’s how the general public has carried on — even among students on college campuses. Now, after spending over a year readjusting to the way of life required during the thick of the pandemic, to once more make such a large switch is blatantly disregarding the effects that the last year has had.
Throughout quarantine, the levels of depression and anxiety in the U.S. rose substantially, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Along with these findings, there’s been talk of agoraphobia-like symptoms emerging from the general public, according to Psychology Today.
While the silver lining of the past year has been that life will return to pre-pandemic normalcy, there needs to be a consensus that acknowledges how taxing it’s been to change and revert our daily social structure with such frequency. It’s especially necessary when considering the mental health and wellbeing of students living on campus.
Fear and uncertainty, major life changes and unpredictable events are all cited as sources of stress on an individual, according to the Mayo Clinic. For those students living on campus in the 2020-21 academic year, they weren’t only moving to a new home in the fall, but they were also struck with fear and uncertainty when barely two weeks later, the majority of on-campus students were sent home.
Even now, with most students back on campus and the majority of classes going strong online, the news of the university’s plan to return in-person was a shock. This is another large change that’ll only contribute to the increased stress of the student body if not handled properly.
Frankly, the thought of taking on a full schedule of classes in person after staying in my dorm room for an entire academic year — while at the same time acclimating to living on a college campus - and post-pandemic — is dizzying, to say the least.
While the restrictions and necessary cautions taken have all been implemented to direct us back to how life was before March 2020, those restrictions went from being temporary to becoming an incremental part of everyday life.
In order to reach the normalcy we all look toward while also being cognizant of the strain that this past year has put on the mental health of students, there must be a discussion of how best to re-acclimate. Rather than flipping a switch and sending the way students are living in a completely opposite direction again, there needs to be conversation about what a healthy reintroduction to concentrated socialization should look like.
The reality is there are studies linking COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine to people realizing fear of public places, according to Psychology Today, which should shout to the decision-makers that the individuals their choices are impacting need more than large changes one after another. That’s especially true when those changes involve thrusting the student body into classrooms with large numbers in attendance.
If what we’re working toward is to reverse the self-isolation that daily life has become on the JMU campus, steps need to be taken to ensure that the students undergoing this transition are supported rather than given the prospect of having to readjust to an entirely new way of living through an email.
It’s been suggested that the administration take a step back and determine which classes work more effectively online vs. in-person for the fall rather than switching them all. Using this and similar tactics as a balance of moderation could be pivotal in the transition back to how things used to operate.
The end goal remains to get life back to feeling normal, but denying the new normal that’ll follow us once the pandemic has subsided will only elongate the negative impacts on mental health brought about through COVID-19.
McKinley Mihailoff is a first year International Affairs and Media Arts & Design double major. Contact McKinley at firstname.lastname@example.org.