As COVID-19, which the World Health Organization (WHO) is now calling a pandemic, continues to spread around the world, U.S. colleges are canceling in-person classes due to the coronavirus that causes the disease. On several campuses, students also were ordered to move out of their dorms by a certain date, leaving them scrambling.
On March 10, Berea College in Kentucky announced it would close campus entirely, sending students home by Saturday, March 14. Berea, which is known for charging no tuition and providing all students with a work-study, serves many low-income students. Ishara Nanayakkara, 22, is from Sri Lanka and is currently a senior at Berea, where she studies political science and communications. She spoke to Elite Daily's Lilli Petersen about what it's like on a campus that's closing because of the coronavirus outbreak.
I wasn’t too worried about coronavirus. Obviously, you do worry when something like that is spreading that fast around the world, but personally, I wasn’t too worried about contracting it. All that we on campus knew was that it was spreading really fast, and we had no idea what was going on.
One day, authorities said, "There’s no cases in Kentucky." In a couple of hours they said, "There’s one case in Kentucky," and by the next day there were five cases.
Most of us seniors were in tears.
The college said on Monday they didn't intend to shut down, and they intended to have classes as planned. Then Tuesday at about 12:30 p.m., we got the email telling us everything would be closing. Most of us seniors were in tears. We were very sad. Other students weren’t too unhappy because for them, it’s just a longer vacation.
But there are some students who still aren’t sure what to do — students who live far away, who don’t really want to go home, or international students with visa problems. It's just a mixture of emotions. Some people are very happy, and some people are upset or worried about what to do.
I was very upset because I had looked forward to having another month to spend with my friends. I wondered, was I going to go home to Sri Lanka? How would I go home? Is it safe to go home? If I don’t, then where could I stay? Then, what about graduation? Is graduation not going to happen at all? Is it going to be postponed? If it’s going to be postponed, then am I going to come back? All the logistics were very emotional.
The college is doing what it can to help. Every student that comes to Berea is given a full tuition scholarship, but they’re expected to pay room and board based on their expected family contribution. Some people pay $200, some people pay $2,000, and every student work-studies for a minimum of 10 hours a week. Some students now are dealing with how they're going to get home if they live far away.
The college has said they’ll keep students on campus who want to stay and give them jobs. There’s also the issue of how students will earn money while we're out of school, but the college is giving us our work-study paychecks even if we aren’t able to work. Everyone’s generally confused because of how fast it’s all happening, but I don't think it’s difficult to apply for help. Berea is very welcoming and helpful in that way.
If one student, or 10 students, were to contract coronavirus, the school wouldn't have the means to quarantine them.
Teachers are doing everything they can to wrap up classes, but it's very confusing. The professors were encouraged not to have online lecture sessions because there’s a good number of students that are from rural areas, especially in Kentucky, and they don’t have access to internet at home. It’s still a work in progress, but in two out of three of my classes, the professors have worked with students and asked us for our suggestions about whether their plans work for us.
Do I think closing campus is an appropriate response to the threat of coronavirus? Yes, because students know that Berea doesn’t close school very easily. You have some schools that close for snow days, but Berea stays open because they’re really committed to students. I believe the decision to close was made after very careful thought and consideration.
If one student, or 10 students, were to contract coronavirus, the school wouldn't have the means to quarantine them with 1,600 students on campus. Berea is a residential campus, so even if officials were to tell students to stay in our dorm rooms and take classes, it would be dangerous. If one person were to have contact with the virus, it would spread really fast in student housing.
I don’t know if everyone agrees with this stance. A lot of students are coming from an emotional place, and they’re very upset. Many don’t want to go home. I think if we look back in a month, we'll understand that the college did what they really thought they had to do.
The graduation ceremony has been canceled until further notice. But students have been told if we continue with our online work until May 3, we will receive our diplomas and graduate. As a senior, I’m obviously very upset, but there are some students that have it worse — their parents have applied for visas to come here for graduation or have already booked plane tickets.
[It’s] like gathering your life out of a burning building.
I’m an American citizen, so I don’t have visa issues. I’m very lucky. Financially, it’s not ideal, but it’s not unaffordable. It can be done, especially with Berea giving students our work-study paychecks, which makes it a lot easier. My immediate plan is to go to Virginia and spend some time with my aunt until my parents and I decide if it’s safe for me to go home. If I were to fly home, I’d be flying for a total of about 20 hours with transit in airports, so I’m not sure if that’s safe right now.
Dealing with this coronavirus crisis is like gathering your life out of a burning building. As seniors, my friends and I are just trying to spend as much time together as possible. I haven't even begun packing. I’m still trying to get homework done and get my classes wrapped up. I'll pack on Friday, and then I’ll move to Virginia for a couple of weeks.
What Berea’s doing — providing housing and money — goes a long way. If other schools do have the means to do that, just little things to make this easier, that's what schools can do to help. Students also have a lot of professors, alumni, and community members offering us rooms and couches and beds, so they can stay for as long as they need. Anything to show, "You’re not alone, we care about you, we’ll help you in any way possible" — it goes a long way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.