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What It’s Like Returning to Skidmore as a Senior During the COVID-19 Crisis (Opinion)

Rising senior Gabrielle Vuillaume explores how students and faculty are feeling about returning to school this August.

Skidmore College senior Gabrielle Vuillaume (second from left) with friends in front of the Skidmore welcome sign.

How schools are planning to reopen this fall has been a hot-button issue of late, whether you’re a parent waiting on guidelines for your child’s return to elementary school, a high school student worried about when you’ll be able to take the SATs or a college senior wondering what your final two semesters will look like. As a rising senior at Skidmore College, I fit into the third category—and it’s been on my mind a lot.

Back on July 2, Skidmore’s new president, Marc C. Conner, unveiled the college’s reopening plan, telling students that they would be able to return to campus for the fall semester on August 24, but would then have to leave by November 20, just before Thanksgiving, at which point they’d finish up final exams remotely. Although it may seem a little strange to invite students back only to send them away again three months later, it’s not so out of the ordinary; the decision to have a shortened, in-person semester followed by a few weeks of remote learning is actually in line with what other area colleges, including The College of Saint Rose and Russell Sage College, are doing. About a third of Skidmore classes will be taught fully online, too, and the other two-thirds will be taught either in person or with a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. This, too, is in line with decisions made by other regional and national colleges.

Honestly, though, I am pretty shocked to hear that we are going back to Skidmore at all. On the one hand, I am excited, because I get to be on campus for my senior year. On the other hand, Skidmore’s plan raises all types of questions, the most important of which is concerning safety: What measures will it have in place to keep students, faculty and staff members safe while they’re back on campus? Quite a bit of that was covered in the college’s fall plan, which states that all students will more than likely have to be tested for COVID-19 prior to their return to campus, and will also need to self-monitor for COVID symptoms. (How the latter will be monitored is a completely different question.) Spaces in residence halls will be reserved for any student who is placed under quarantine while residing in campus-provided housing, and the college is looking into placing students in local hotels to ensure that no more than two students are housed per room. Skidmore will also be partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute to offer COVID-19 testing through its health services department.

Having students back on campus and making sure that they’re safe is one thing, but what about in-person classes, where students and professors are potentially closer together? Per the college’s plan, Skidmore will put in place a number of COVID safety measures for in-person classes, including social distancing, mandatory PPE, deep-cleaning of all rooms and even plexiglass dividers in certain situations. “It’s going to be weird with the plexiglass dividers, everyone having to wear masks and social distancing,” says senior education studies major Kyle Cassarino, “but I think faculty members are going to work hard to give students the best teaching [experience] at Skidmore, despite the circumstances.” I agree; in-person classes are going to feel unconventional, but the safety measures are necessary to make students and professors feel comfortable in that environment. I also concur that professors are going to be working extra hard to make adjustments to this “new normal.” I know of some professors who have gone the extra mile and taken online workshops on remote instruction to prepare for at least another semester of virtual learning. Newly appointed Chair of the English Department Barbara Black, whom I’ll be taking an English class from in the fall, says it’s been challenging trying to figure out how she will be able to teach her class this semester. “I want my class to work for students who are here on campus and those who are learning remotely,” Black says. “It came down to a matter of access for me.” Skidmore’s reopening plan states that the college will work to accommodate those students who are unable or unwilling to return to campus in person come August 24; the class I’m taking with Professor Black, called “The Wild(e) Nineties,” will be a “hyflex” class, meaning that it will not only be available to in-person students like me, but also those that choose to remain at home for the semester. As chair, Professor Black has even laid some groundwork prior to the semester, reaching out to English majors and minors multiple times to check in. “I felt the need to connect with others,” she says. “Our students have been so kind in their response. They appreciate the effort.”

While the last few months have been stressful for all college students, it’s been particularly so for international students, who have faced even more obstacles regarding returning to college in the fall. On July 6, the Trump administration announced a rule that would have required international students studying in the US to return home if their classes were taught entirely online. The rule was rescinded the following week, following backlash from colleges and universities across the country, but not before international students had a real scare about what the next few months might hold. “It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions,” says senior Sanjna Selva, a Skidmore student from Malaysia, who is studying international affairs and minoring in documentary film. “It’s definitely taken a toll on my mental health.” After the Trump administration’s initial July 6 announcement, Selva says international students petitioned and sent emails to the Skidmore administration, and in return, they were given overwhelming support from the faculty and administration, who immediately began troubleshooting how to best protect  students and their visas. On July 10, the administration even released a statement of support for the college’s international students.

College is often described as the best four years of your life, and going into my senior year, I can say that it has been a unique experience. While the pandemic has certainly been a roadblock in many ways, it hasn’t been the end of the road for me. I look forward to making the most out of my final year at Skidmore, mask and all.

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Gabrielle Vuillaume

Gabrielle Vuillaume is an editorial assistant at Saratoga Living.

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