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I'm willing to wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart to return to college campus

Three months after the conclusion of one unpredictable semester, colleges and universities across the country are preparing for another. I use the word “preparing” loosely, because there’s only so much you can do to prepare for something without having the slightest idea of what it might look like.

As an incoming senior at Albion College, I'm getting ready to return to campus in just under a month. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Albion has constructed its own set of protocols that students will be expected to follow upon arriving on campus.

Even knowing what some of these protocols are, I still can’t quite picture how campus is going to look once I get there. What I can picture, though, is a swift move home if students don’t follow these new rules and regulations.

Albion is slowly releasing details about what this upcoming semester might look like. Outside of our rooms, students will be required to wear masks at all times. We'll be expected to follow a regimen of regular, thorough hand washing, especially when travelling from place to place around campus. Desks will be placed 6 feet apart in classrooms in order to maintain physical distancing during class periods. 

Nothing unexpected there.

But I didn't anticipate being asked to quarantine for seven days prior to my scheduled move-in. During move-in, I'll be tested for COVID-19, and I'll have to quarantine for another 72 hours until the test results come in.

During this 72-hour quarantine period, students are expected to limit in-person contact to roommates, suite-mates or apartment mates. We must stay in to our rooms as much as possible in order to minimize contact with others, and we're encouraged to bring activities and entertainment to keep ourselves occupied. We're allowed to leave our rooms or apartments to pick up food from on-campus dining locations. Meals must be eaten in our rooms or outdoors, away from others.

Students who test positive will move to a COVID-only isolation space on campus until approved to leave by the county health department.

Reunions without hugs

The move-in protocol, as well as periodic testing throughout the semester, makes sense. As a campus community, we need to help keep others safe, and be safe ourselves. Testing and isolation of infected students are two important ways to accomplish those goals.

But the logic behind the protocol doesn't make the news any less disappointing. My previous returns to campus have been filled hugs and excited talk about the semester ahead. This year, hugs will be replaced with 6 feet of empty space, and any discussion will linger beneath masks that won't quite conceal our anxiety about the year ahead.

Last spring, the last week I spent on campus saw both Michigan's first confirmed case of COVID-19 and its first resulting death. 

That final week turned my junior year upside down. Spring sports came to a sudden end before they’d even really begun. Classes moved from bustling lecture halls to laptop screens in dormitory rooms. Before I knew it, I and my peers on college campuses across the country were completing the school year in our childhood homes.

That same regression from adulthood to childhood — all those changes that we're still mentally unpacking — will happen again if we don't comply with the rules our schools put in place.

The price of proximity

I don’t want to wear a mask for the entirety of a two-hour lecture. I don’t want to be in isolation for three days following each test. I don’t want to be 6 feet away from my friends, when all I want to do is give them the tightest hugs I possibly can.

But 6 feet is closer than the many miles will separate us if the semester were to be held remotely — and it will be held remotely if every student doesn’t do their part. So we'll need to wear masks, maintain physical distancing and follow every other protocol our colleges mandate in order to have any semblance of a normal semester.

That being said, no amount of new technology, extensive cleaning, personal protective equipment or other modifications colleges can put in place can make up for what we, as college students, are missing out on. For as much as college years are about academics and receiving a degree, they’re also about shared experiences on campus, experiences that often lead to lifelong relationships. 

Those shared experiences aren’t something I want to lose. But the risk of losing them, for another semester, or even another year is real.

I’m still grappling with the fact that I’ve spent the majority of 2020 in my childhood bedroom. College is a transitional phase from youth to adulthood, but it feels less like a transition and more like permanent adolescence when you're occupying the same space you did as a child. 

I picture the moment when I see my friends on campus for the first time this semester. Some of them I haven’t seen in mere days. For others, it’s been weeks, even months. But I want to hug each of them as tightly as the last. I want to tell them all that everything is going to be okay, and I don’t want to have to say those words from under a mask.

But I'm going to.

Jordan Revenaugh is spending the summer as an intern with the Free Press Editorial Board. She lives, for now, in Rochester Hills.

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