A sunny April day on the sprawling Colorado State University campus should beckon Frisbee tossers, study sessions on the grass and the foot traffic of tens of thousands of students nearing the end of the academic year.
Instead, the pandemic has left the Fort Collins campus a shadow of its former self, operating on minimum capacity to house students with nowhere else to go after the highly contagious new coronavirus prompted colleges across Colorado to switch to online learning and shutter their classrooms.
Senior Kaori Keyser is among the approximately 400 students left living in CSU’s dorms — a community normally bustling with more than 6,000 students out of the university’s total enrolled population of more than 34,000.
Keyser is employed on campus as a resident adviser, meaning she keeps a watchful eye on her dormitory and those who dwell within it. The university asked students who were able to leave campus to head home to ease the spread of the respiratory illness, but officials requested student staff who were able to stay to stick around to do so to help with the remaining residents.
Keyser’s home base is in Louisiana, but she receives Medicaid insurance in Colorado.
“Not having health insurance right now is not something I’m trying to do,” Keyser said.
What is she trying to do? Occupy endless hours in her teeny dorm room.
Keyser hopes she has enough yarn to sustain her burgeoning knitting projects. The furniture in her dorm’s lobby has been removed to prevent congregating, so the 22-year-old and Jasmine — her registered emotional support cat — have been spending more time together than usual. Phone calls and video conferences between friends are frequent. Being cooped up in a dorm room knowing human connection is just beyond her walls, yet out of reach, is an odd feeling, Keyser said.
“It’s been about a month now, and there have definitely been highs and lows,” Keyser said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I haven’t had a meal with someone in a month, and I’d like to sit down for dinner.’ But I can’t really do that now. Sometimes I’ll go for a run. Sometimes I’ll just walk outside to get some sun and not be in my little box of a room.”
The environmental engineering major is finishing up her last year of college courses from her dorm, which is also where she’s eating meals and trying to stay sane as the remaining students on campus are encouraged to keep away from each other.
“It’s just quieter”
The nearly 400 students were consolidated into two residence halls on campus to make upkeep a bit easier, said Helena Gardner, CSU director of university housing.
The quintessential college roommate is no more as students were placed in dorm rooms by themselves to follow social distancing best practices.
“It’s just quieter,” said Carolyn Bell, CSU’s director of housing & dining facilities. “You’re used to seeing so many students out and about. It doesn’t feel like April in some ways on a college campus.”
The dining hall connecting the two operating dorms has tape on the floor marking 6-foot distances and directing students with arrow paths to ease congestion and mingling, said Liz Poore, CSU director of residential dining.
“We went from serving 12,000 meals a day to 500, so that’s a big jump,” Poore said, adding there’s a much higher chance for a chef to whip up a special request if a student asks.
Hours in the dining halls, which were typically open all day, were reduced so staff could deeply clean multiple times a day, Poore said. While operating, surfaces are sanitized and wiped down and serving utensils like spatulas are swapped out every 30 minutes, Poore said.
“A lot of uncertainty”
Keyser was grateful for the dining hall employees, although she was beginning to burn out on the rotation of meal options. A small moment of joy came along when Keyser fashioned chili cheese fries out of the few options available — a craving she was able to satiate.
Poore said there’s ongoing education telling students who leave the dining hall to take their food back to their rooms rather than congregate and eat together like the good old days.
“It’s really, really hard,” Poore said. “I don’t think it’s our human nature to do that, so we have to sometimes be reminded of those things.”
Amid all the changes and uncertainties, Keyser said most pressing was the fact that she didn’t know what she was going to do once the semester was over.
“I think a lot of people are stressed about where their life is going because of the pandemic and how they’ll be able to handle things,” Keyser said. “It’s difficult to find a job right now. Some people don’t have anywhere else to go. There’s just a lot of uncertainty. It’s weighing on a lot of people. It’s definitely not what I expected the end of my senior year to be.”
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