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The new on-campus college experience: self-isolation and distraction

Social isolation due to the coronavirus has become a stressor for many college students across Virginia, who report that studying is more difficult and their mental health is suffering.

Capital News Service

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By Hunter Britt

Social isolation due to the coronavirus has become a stressor for many college students across Virginia, who report that studying is more difficult and their mental health is suffering.

Shane Emory, a senior broadcast journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, says he is experiencing this firsthand. While the dorms are quieter overall, there is very little opportunity to escape distractions. Emory says that his guitar and television are the top two things that draw him away from work.

Since the pandemic swept the nation, altered routines have become the new normal. Students who usually study in the library say that is no longer an option to consider lightly. Many students say the best option is to stay put and endure distractions and loneliness rather than risk contracting the virus or unknowingly endangering someone else.

Camryn Nesmith, a junior nursing major at Liberty University in Lynchburg, says that increased social isolation has taken a toll on her concentration and mental wellbeing. She also says that it is difficult to escape from loud noises and distractions in her dorm.

“There has been an effect on my school work because I don’t do well doing schoolwork in my dorm. I need to be in the library or somewhere like that,” she says. “I try to get my work done early in the morning when it’s quiet.”

Nesmith feels that Liberty prioritizes the safety of its students and that there are always people enforcing the rules and making sure everyone wears a mask. The university is currently reporting 184 total cases since Sept. 2. Almost 490 on-campus students are currently quarantined, along with 492 commuters and 139 employees.

Marian Woodington, a sophomore vocal music education major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, says via email that she initially attended in-person classes, albeit reluctantly. Cases quickly spiked at the Harrisonburg-based university, hitting over 500 the first week classes resumed.

“I did feel reluctant because, since there were not harsh regulations, anyone could have sat in the seat that I chose, and they could be sick,” she says. “The rooms were only cleaned at certain times throughout the day and you never know what someone else has touched when walking into a building.”

JMU classes were moved online about a week after starting after consultation with the Virginia Department of Health. As of Friday, the university has reported almost 1,400 total coronavirus cases since Aug. 17.

The pandemic has caused a significant mental health impact on students. More students are using VCU support services, according to Jihad Aziz, the interim executive director of VCU University Counseling Services. Students who have sought counseling this semester raise many concerns such as worry over family members and the fear of contracting the coronavirus, Aziz said in an email. The office has implemented some new methods in response, such as offering support groups for students that meet weekly over Zoom.

“We know that students are seeking connection and it’s important that they know that they are not alone during these difficult times,” Aziz says. “We have support groups specifically for students of color, those with chronic health issues, health professional students, and a few others.”

VCU initially experienced a spike in cases when a cluster of 44 positive cases connected to VCU Athletics was reported in the second week of classes. The university has reported a total of 251 cases since Aug. 17.

COVID-19 and the accompanying economic recession have negatively affected the mental health of many people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A Kaiser poll taken in mid-July reported that 53% of U.S. adults say their anxiety levels have increased significantly due to stress associated with COVID-19. Adults also reported difficulties sleeping and eating due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.

Rickaya Sykes, a junior theatre performance major at VCU, has a different perspective on how staying inside has affected her mental health. She considers herself an extrovert, but says that prolonged periods indoors have improved her concentration and time management.

“I’m able to relax knowing that I don’t want to go out because of the virus,” she says. “I can stay in and cook, I can watch movies, and I don’t feel pressured to be on the go all the time. I find it soothing to not have plans to go anywhere.”

According to the CDC, taking time to relax and unwind can be a good way to cope with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Sykes, Emory also is taking time to relax. When the call of his guitar becomes too loud to ignore, he puts down the books and picks it up.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Education

PHOTOS: University of Richmond opens new integrated “Well-Being Center” on campus

This month, UR opened its Well-Being Center, which is designed to be a collaborative, high-impact environment to support student learning and well-being. It houses the Student Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as health promotion and nutrition services.

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Providing college students with the skills and experiences they need to succeed is only one part of an education. The University of Richmond also is committed to enabling students to develop a holistic approach to well-being that will not only serve them while they are on campus, but throughout life.

This month, UR opened its Well-Being Center, which is designed to be a collaborative, high-impact environment to support student learning and well-being. It houses the Student Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as health promotion and nutrition services. Locating these critical student services in a single location enhances the university’s ability to provide integrated care and support for students.

“We’ve eliminated the barriers for students seeking help,” said Tom Roberts, associate vice president of health and well-being.

Research shows that students often neglect three areas: nutrition, mindfulness, and sleep. The Well-Being Center offers solutions to all three.

The new building includes features to encourage students to visit the facility not only when they need care, but also when they want to be proactive about their health. The Center offers a meditation garden, labyrinth, salt spa, and rest stop with massage chairs and sleep pods. The Organic Krush Café offers health food options and a demonstration kitchen will help students understand how to prepare nutritious dishes. Well-being classes also will be offered.

“Some of these things sound like such luxuries, but they are really necessities,” said Roberts. “I hope students come in here and find something they need and that can help them.”

The Center will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Plans for the $20 million building kicked off in April 2018 with the announcement of a lead gift from the Walrath Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by alumni Michael and Michelle Walrath.

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University of Richmond begins spring semester with students back on campus, health and safety policies in place

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students.

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The University of Richmond has resumed in-person instruction and the residential educational experience for the spring 2021 semester as of yesterday, Tuesday, January 19th, 2021.

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students. Specific plans for the spring semester include:

“The University continues to monitor very closely pandemic developments, and we are prepared to modify our approach to instruction if conditions warrant,” said Jeff Legro, executive vice president and provost. “At this time, we believe we can safely and responsibly continue with our plans for an in-person spring semester, and our community is committed to adhering to our guidelines to make that possible.”

Testing and Screening Protocols

All students were tested for COVID-19 on campus prior to move-in or taking in-person classes. Students were asked to self-quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to campus by staying at home to the fullest extent possible and following additional health and safety protocols. All members of the University community must monitor their health daily. Faculty and staff are also being provided options for COVID-19 testing. UR will also continue COVID-19 prevalence testing, which involves testing a randomly selected group of asymptomatic people to assess the incidence of COVID-19 on campus. 

Move-In

In order to promote physical distancing and ensure adherence to health and safety protocols, student move-in is being phased over a period of 17 days and is expected to conclude Sunday, Jan. 24. Students moving in during this final week are starting their classes remotely and will begin in-person classes following their arrival to campus.

Red Stage Opening and Enhanced Rules

As in the fall, the University of Richmond will open in the Red Stage of its Physical Distancing Framework. During the move-in period, additional enhanced Red Stage rules were implemented to promote a successful and safe start to the semester. These policies provide guidance for students awaiting COVID-19 test results, limit visitors in student residences, and require residential students to remain on campus.  

Calendar and Class Information

The first day of classes is Jan. 19, and classes will conclude April 23. Finals will take place April 28 through May 6. There will be no spring break; however, UR has added two mid-week break days in Feburary and April. As was the case this fall, many courses will be offered in-person while some will be offered fully online or use a combination of approaches. In-person classes will continue to be offered in classrooms modified to support active learning while adhering to physical distancing and related safety protocols. Students could also choose to complete the semester fully online.

Dashboard Data

The University of Richmond COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated at least weekly, remains a source of information to provide updates on COVID-19 data specifically related to the campus community.

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U of R announces socially distant service opportunities and virtual events in honor of MLK Day

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

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The University of Richmond has announced it will be closed Monday, January 18th to allow the campus community to engage in physically-distanced service activities celebrating MLK Day.

Historically, UR celebrates the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through a day filled with service opportunities completed alongside the greater Richmond community. Due to COVID-19, this year’s MLK Day events will foster opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to volunteer virtually by working on project kits developed by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The kits entail projects such as transcribing documents from the Library of Virginia; creating birthday cards for Celebrate! RVA; making toys for the ASPCA; writing letters to elected officials; and more.

The community will also have the opportunity to use the Book Arts Studio’s printing press on MLK Day, to create book art and journals that align with this year’s theme, “The Revolution Then And Now: A Time of Healing.”

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

“In the wake of two pandemics — COVID-19 and social injustice — we’re encouraging our community to reflect on what it will mean to heal as we look to the future and explore the ways that we can better impact the lives of those in our community and beyond who experience social injustices and are fighting their own individual revolution,” said Morgan Russell, associate director of multicultural affairs and event organizer.

Full details about UR’s MLK Day celebration are available at richmond.edu/mlk.

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