Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

As students return to campus, some are experiencing the isolation that comes with online classes, more stringent campus restrictions and, in some cases, COVID-19 isolation housing.

A national rise in COVID-19 cases in late December and early January led administrators to delay the start of the semester by a week, move the first two weeks of instruction online and shift to grab-and-go dining services until further notice. Students had the option to return to campus between Jan. 14 and Feb. 4, opting to start their classes for the semester either in residence at Yale or from home. 

The News spoke to eight students about their first days of the semester, many of whom described a widespread sense of uncertainty as they returned or planned to return to campus. 

“I almost felt better being home because my therapist is there and I had a lot more free time and there wasn’t this issue of having to figure out when I was going to eat meals,” said Lawrence Tang ’25, who returned to campus before classes began. “My parents were being parents and taking care of me. Being here, not only am I separated from this very safe safety net, but there’s also a lot more uncertainty.” 

Rhayna Poulin ’25 said that she returned to campus on Jan. 14, the first day students were permitted to move back into their dorms, and that she is satisfied with her decision to take classes from Yale rather than from home.

Although Poulin said that the absence of in-person events and classes meant that campus felt different, the atmosphere in Morse College, where she is living, felt similar enough to last semester that she would opt to take classes there rather than from home. 

“In reality, even though I can’t physically go to class I can still see my friends and walk around campus,” Poulin said. “I feel like being at home and having to do Zoom classes would be significantly worse than being here and having some semblance of normalcy.”

Emma Polinsky ’25 concurred, explaining that while Branford College feels much quieter now than it did last semester, the sense of community is still palpable. Polinsky still sees friendly faces in the dining halls and in the basement, she said, emphasizing the warmth of the dining hall staff.

But for students who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival and were relocated to isolation housing, this sense of normalcy has been harder to maintain.

Emily Zenner ’24 tested negative when she first arrived on campus, but she received a positive test a few days later — she hypothesized she contracted COVID-19 while traveling. In isolation housing, Zenner said, she receives a daily delivery of frozen food and is sometimes allowed to go outside in a fenced-off yard that she compared to a “zoo exhibit.”

The Yale COVID-19 dashboard reports that isolation housing is currently at 76 percent availability, and  Zenner and Suzanne Brown ’23, who is also isolating in McClellan Hall, both said that isolation housing feels relatively empty.

“I can tell that a couple of people have moved into my floor over the past couple of days that I’ve been here, but for the most part, it’s silent,” Brown said. “It’s almost eerily silent. I could hear when people were in their Zoom classes earlier today.”

Zenner agreed that social connection was limited in isolation housing, expressing her concern for students, particularly first years, who might not have close friends checking in on them in isolation. 

For Zenner, attending online classes from isolation housing has been “kind of a blessing” because she has ADHD and might be more distracted in her own room, she said. However, she emphasized that remote learning apart from other students could heighten feelings of loneliness.

“There really isn’t anybody to get out the nervous jitters with,” Zenner said. “I’m kind of just alone in the room with my classes and scary thoughts.”

The first week of remote learning has also been trying for students who are not in isolation housing.

For Poulin, who lives with four other people, coordinating schedules with suitemates has been the greatest challenge of remote learning so far. Poulin said that her suitemates were on completely different schedules, and sometimes had to leave the suite so that others could take participation-based classes.

Karley Yung ’25 has faced similar challenges. She lives in Lanman-Wright Hall, where all four of her and her suitemates’ desks are in the common room.

“One of my suitemates is still at home, so another one of my suitemates stays in the common room, and my roommate and I have gone out when we have seminar or discussion-style classes,” Yung explained. “My roommate and I are both in a lecture together so it’s been funny sitting next to her and reacting at the same time like when the Zoom freezes.”

For other students, taking classes online has made staying present in class and engaging with course material more challenging.

Tang, who compared his experience of remote learning to “a very expensive podcast,” has struggled to stay focused in classes, especially because he finds it hard to pay attention when learning from his bedroom.

“Zoom classes are really, really bad,” Tang said. “I cannot focus. I do literally every single thing they recommend: I take my meds, I find something to fidget with with my hands, I turn all of my devices, except what I’m Zooming in on, onto airplane mode. But I don’t know. I still can’t pay attention.”

Mahesh Agarwal ’24 also added that remote classes have the isolating effect of discouraging students from leaving their suites and moving around campus.

When classes are in session in-person, Agarwal said, campus social life is often spontaneous, driven by unexpected run-ins. But the switch to Zoom has temporarily halted that aspect of social interaction, especially because the cold weather discourages students congregating outdoors.

“I think it’s the combination that it’s winter, there’s some people that are on campus and some people that aren’t, and the two places where you usually see people — in classes and dining — are not functioning as normal,” Agarwal said. “I think that makes it definitely feel isolated.”

During the first week of classes, many residential colleges began permitting students to assemble their own grab-and-go meals rather than picking them up from dining hall staff, which Agarwal said had felt “a little Oliver Twist.”

Nevertheless, such a drastic change to dining routines can still pose a challenge to many students as they return to campus.

“Even first semester, it was hard for me to finish all my food or tell myself to eat,” Tang said. “Now, with the takeout containers, it’s sometimes borderline impossible. I have to put on a Netflix show, and as a result, I kind of cannot have a social meal even with my suitemates because it’ll distract me and I end up not eating anything.”

Miriam Kopyto ’23 noted that other students might rely on dining with their friends to maintain a healthy eating schedule. Grab-and-go dining, Kopyto suggested, could pose challenges to students who struggle with disordered eating or getting enough nutrition in their diets.

Kopyto, the director of the Yale Student Mental Health Association, emphasized the toll that limits to in-person engagement can take on student mental health.

“I feel like at this point, Yale is taking away from the opportunity to have meaningful social interactions, especially at the beginning of the semester when a lot of the time you rely on friends to help you organize your classes and help you be on track and you just don’t have that right now,” Kopyto said. “It’s a million times harder to be alone.”

Kopyto suggested that the University provide students, especially those in isolation housing, with available mental health resources, suggesting that students automatically be granted an appointment with Yale College Community Care upon their admission to isolation housing.

Looking towards the rest of the semester, students’ outlooks were largely divided between anxiety and cautious optimism.

“I cannot confidently say that we will return to in-person classes on the scheduled date, but I can confidently say that the University is working towards that goal as best they can,” Polinsky said. “It seems that their hope is to move things in person as soon as it is possible and safe for the Yale-New Haven community.”

Polinsky also said that the vaccination and booster requirements at Yale generally made her feel safe on campus, especially when compared to her home state of Florida.

Zenner, however, pointed to how easy it had been for her to contract COVID-19 before coming to campus and worried that courses would remain remote if cases in the Northeast increased. Changing positivity rates, Zenner said, would be the only way to predict the rest of the semester.

“I do feel fairly confident that classes will go back to in-person,” said Poulin. “However, I do sometimes worry that the administration will announce another two weeks of virtual learning at the end of this period and that pattern will just continue until most of our semester is online. I don’t see that happening, necessarily, but I do worry about it.”

In-person classes are set to resume Feb. 7.

Lucy Hodgman is the editor-in-chief and president of the News. She previously covered student life and the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in English.