Not another coronavirus story
Nearly two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Yale community reflected on senses of loss and change.
Karen Lin, Photo Editor
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Abby Parrish ’25 was in her junior year of high school. Now, she’s nearly through with her first year of college, and is still adjusting to life on-campus amid volatile public health conditions.
In the two years since the pandemic started, as public health conditions fluctuated and the University sent students onto and off of campus, Parrish applied to Yale, finished out high school virtually, and this fall, entered a classroom for the first time in 18 months.
“It’s interesting, talking to some of my friends here, who are in higher grades or who took a gap year, and who had more of a high school experience than I ever got to have,” Parrish said. “There are moments when it really hits me, realizing just how much I missed out on. One of the things that’s been difficult about this sustained limbo that we’re living in — where we’re not in shutdown, but we’re not fully open — is that I am still going about my life as best as I can, but there is that sense that, if things were normal, I would be doing so much more.”
March 14 marks two years since the University’s announcement that classes would remain online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester and most students could not return. After a largely locked down 2020-21 academic year, some degree of normalcy has resumed — students returned to in-person classes and a campus at full capacity this fall. On Thursday, the University announced a plan to relax masking restrictions. But for many Yale students, the COVID-19 pandemic has meaningfully impacted both the shape of their college experiences and their mental health. Six members of the Yale community spoke about the effect that the past two years of continued uncertainty has had on the student body, describing anxiety, grief and more recently, a shared sense of fatigue.
“One of the top issues on my mind when I wake up in the morning and before I go to bed at night is just thinking about how tired everyone is,” said Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun. “It’s on my mind constantly.”
For Gabriella Gutierrez ’23, part of the challenge of living through the pandemic has been the lack of a “clear end in sight.”
The emergence of the Delta variant over the summer and the Omicron variant this fall have created public health conditions that Parrish compared to a “rollercoaster,” necessitating frequent changes to on-campus restrictions and the in-person status of classes, dining halls and extracurricular activities.
“The uncertainty of everything is exhausting,” Gutierrez said.
Parrish agreed, suggesting that people can only handle so many “rounds” of heightened stress and fear before their response is not only one of anxiety, but one of exhaustion, too.
Sarah Lowe, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, explained how the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic coupled with the fatigue that many feel after the past two years has had a significant effect on student mental health.
The American Medical Association has identified COVID-19 fatigue as a sense of burnout and exhaustion caused by the mental and emotional stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think there is a sense of fatigue, as well as uncertainty about the future,” Lowe said. “Those two in combination could enhance risk for a variety of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. One of the key predictors of anxiety is intolerance of uncertainty. So, for some people who have difficulty with uncertainty generally, living through an uncertain time is going to be especially difficult for them.”
The continued pandemic uncertainty can create fatigue, Lowe said, which is both a symptom of and a risk factor for depression.
The mental toll associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Lowe noted, is compounded by additional social stressors that have arisen in the past two years. She pointed specifically to the threat of climate change, police brutality and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Even as restrictions have relaxed, Parrish, who is immunocompromised, continues to feel the anxiety about contracting COVID-19 that for many is primarily associated with the early stages of the pandemic.
But as she abides by these restrictions, Parrish said, there are times when she feels like she is going to “go insane” if she doesn’t see other people.
“But when I do interact with people,” Parrish said, “there’s this little voice in the back of my mind constantly — ‘You are putting yourself at risk right now. You don’t know who this person has been around. No matter how close you are to them, no matter how close your relationship is with them, you cannot trust them 100 percent.’”
Even as the University has relaxed some of the strictest of the on-campus guidelines and is planning for an in-person Spring Fling and Commencement, all students interviewed told the News that the effects of the pandemic on their college experiences have been both dramatic and permanent.
Abigail Grimes ’22 said that she notices a stark divide between juniors and seniors — those that spent time at Yale before the pandemic struck — and the sophomores and first years who have never known a Yale without the coronavirus.
The sense of mourning that adolescents might feel for experiences lost to the pandemic should not be ignored, Lowe said, adding that trivializing the loss of a prom or graduation ceremony can foster feelings of guilt and shame.
“I think it’s a sort of grief,” Lowe said, “Things that you imagined for yourself, you are unable to have because of circumstances beyond your control. It’s maybe a heightened version of what sometimes happens anyway — I think growing up, people have a vision for what their life is going to be like, and it doesn’t always turn out that way, and that can be very sad. But with this, there’s nothing you could have done.”
Although Grimes’ own relationship to Yale was “radically changed” by the pandemic, the effects of the past two years have not all been negative ones, she said.
Grimes spent the majority of the pandemic at home in rural Georgia and took courses remotely until fall 2021.
“I don’t have any sense of FOMO because I feel like I actually got to have an experience of youth that I wouldn’t have had at Yale because I was worried and anxious all the time, and caught up in competitiveness all the time,” Grimes said. “I think that getting to not be competitive, just doing classes and going to my friend down the street and drinking wine in our bedrooms, was nice, and I wouldn’t have had experiences like that otherwise.”
Looking forward, Parrish said, she still feels some anxiety about the potential of COVID-19 restrictions lifting prematurely.
Having to remain restrictive in her own socialization while her friends return to pre-COVID-19 habits can heighten a sense of isolation, she said, and sometimes feels like “looking through a window.”
Nonetheless, Parrish, who described herself as “a hopeful person by nature,” emphasized the optimism she still feels about the future.
“As someone who had to be cautious for so long and still to some extent is, I have really learned to savor the small moments,” Parrish said. “There was a long period of time last semester when I was able to eat in dining halls with my friends, and even if I was anxious, I felt comfortable enough doing that. That is something that I cannot afford to take for granted at this point because I’ve learned how easily that can all be snatched away. So any moments that I get like that, any social interactions, any school trips, school experiences, whatever — I’ve learned to be a lot more grateful for those now.”
Yale’s loosened mask restrictions will go into effect on March 21.