VHS Grads Tackle College–And The Pandemic


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Caroline Gault is one of the few VHS grads on campus for college this fall. At Saint Mary’s College, masks are required in classrooms, but not in dorm rooms.

The fall 2020 semester will be very different for Verona’s college students. The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled colleges to create entirely new teaching plans–and change them almost as fast as they are created. As a result, some Verona High School grads will be on campus with a mix of in-person and online learning, while others will be online for the whole semester. Both those going to college for the first time and returning college students will have to adapt.

Caroline Gault, a VHS ‘20 graduate, is now on campus for her first year as a nursing student at Saint Mary’s College. Located in Notre Dame, Indiana, Saint Mary’s started classes three weeks early on Monday, August 10, to have students wrap up classes before Thanksgiving and take finals at home, in preparation for a possible second wave of novel coronavirus. The college has stuck with with this plan since early May, and Gault considers herself lucky to be able to be on campus and have some normalcy during her freshman year experience.

“Before I left for school, I was very excited to start a new chapter and just be able to go to college and try and get a ‘normal’ experience,” Gault says. “I am glad my school has working so hard to give us the best freshman year experience possible.” Gault has one class that is hybrid that she attends in person twice a week, followed by two lectures on Zoom. Other than that, the rest of her courses meet in person. Saint Mary’s had a weekend of outdoor freshmen welcoming activities, such as an activities fair where students could sign up for clubs. On the final night of freshmen orientation, the college had gift basket raffles and brought in food trucks.

According to The New York Timescollege coronavirus tracker, Saint Mary’s had 34 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, September 8, while the University of Notre Dame, which is located in the same town, had 579. New Jersey put travelers from Indiana on its quarantine list on July 21.

The rising number of cases is not yet changing Gault’s academic schedule and meeting plans. While she suspects the situation could easily change, she says her school life feels the same as when she arrived in August. Saint Mary’s is advising the student body to use good judgment when outside of dorm rooms, and to wear masks at all times when not in dorm rooms. There are dorm guest restrictions and the college is discouraging non-essential travel to and from campus to prevent spreading COVID-19. 

“What I have seen around campus seems like everyone is taking it seriously, everyone has been wearing masks and have been following the social distancing guidelines,” says Gault. “We all want to be able to stay at school which is why so many people are complying with the guidelines and taking it seriously because no one wants to get sent home. Other than wearing a mask to my in-person class and not being able to visit my friends’ dorm rooms, everything feels normal.”

Many other universities are fully remote for fall 2020, including Drexel University, where VHS ‘20 graduate Meaghan Elliott had hoped to start her freshman year as a graphic design major.

While disappointed that she will not be able to move into her college dorm room as planned, Elliott is focusing her energy on making her freshman year as productive and memorable as possible. Her childhood bedroom has been transformed into a workspace with decor and lighting to help her have a successful online school experience. She finds silver linings in saving money on housing, not having to worry about moving in, and most importantly, not having to worry about being sent home with little notice, or being exposed to any dangers of the COVID-19 while away from home.

“I’m definitely solid on keeping my thoughts positive,” Elliott says. “I’ve also made countless connections even during this strange time by being in several group chats and following many of my future peers on social media. I’ve also exchanged phone numbers with my ‘would have been roommate.’ She’s from North Carolina and we text nearly every day. It’s so nice to have other people who are going through the same situation with me at the same school, and to also have people to rely on someday when we eventually return to campus.”

When that will be is not clear. Prior to August 19, Drexel students had been assured that there would be a return to campus plan, but Elliott has seen less correspondence about that as she nears the start of classes on Monday, September 21. According to The New York Times database, Drexel now has two coronavirus cases.

Drexel University is remote-only this fall and mechanical engineering junior Connor Silvia was working entirely remotely from his parents’ Verona basement for his March to September co-op.

First-year college students are not the only ones facing changing conditions this year. Drexel University mechanical engineering junior Connor Silvia, VHS ‘17, has been working entirely remotely for his six month co-op, an internship-like opportunity. Silvia works as a mechanical design engineer at L3Harris Technologies in Camden, from his basement-turned office in Verona. He sees some negatives in his work experience, but is neutral toward the classroom aspect of remote coursework.

“Honestly the pandemic barely interfered with my academics from this past year,” Silvia says. “I had winter finals right at the onset of the whole situation so it was only finals week that went remote. However, it was my co-op that the pandemic really threw a wrench into because it’s been almost entirely virtual, all six months. I consider myself very lucky though because I still started on time and did not miss a day.”

Silvia, who set up an office in the basement of his parent’s house, says that being in-person would have certainly been easier to learn new things at his co-op, as he deals frequently with simulations or building engineering models. He also would have liked to get to personally know his coworkers and supervisors, and feels he has had to work harder to make a lasting impression on them. On the plus side, he says the experience has only made his skills more versatile.

Unlike first-year students, Silvia is fortunate enough to have established himself on campus with his involvement in the Drexel’s Mechanical Engineering Honor Society and living on campus since his freshman year. He will be moving into an off-campus apartment in Philadelphia with a few of his collegiate peers, and says that the adjustment to taking all of his classes virtually will not be a huge adjustment for him, since his work experience has been remote and he took classes remotely this summer.

“Even though I was working co-op full-time over the spring and summer, I still enrolled in one night course each term,” Silvia says. “Comparing the Zoom classes and lectures from the beginning of the spring to now, the end of the summer, I honestly have noticed a complete change in theme. Professors are more creative in engaging their students. Students are more inclined to keep their cameras on and participate and ask questions. The situation is not ideal but I do feel strongly that as we continue down the remote-learning path the quality of the education itself is improving, even though it is not a justifiable long-term substitute to in-person learning.”

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