When the University of Colorado Boulder moved classes completely online for at least two weeks starting Sept. 23 and Boulder County Public Health banned young people from gathering in groups of two or more, freshman Sachi Rohilla moved back to Colorado Springs with her parents. She’ll stay for at least another week or two — depending on the COVID-19 situation.
“It’s kind of a total lockdown at this point,” Rohilla, 18, said. “There was really no point staying there.”
In-person classes could resume as early as Oct. 7, but that depends on whether the school can “reverse the trend” of new COVID-19 cases. Through on-campus testing, 1,051 people have tested positive since Aug. 24 — and the university is the site of the largest outbreak in the state.
That number, from the school’s COVID-19 dashboard, doesn’t include tests conducted by providers other than CU Boulder Medical Services. In Boulder County, 4,452 positive or probable cases have been counted since the pandemic began. In the two-week period ending Sept. 28, the county has seen 443 new cases per 100,000 people — one of the highest incidence rates in the state.
“While we have seen a decline in new cases over the past few days, it’s still too early to tell if the mitigation strategies are effective,” Boulder County Public Health spokesperson Chana Goussetis said in an email Sept. 29. After the number of daily new cases at CU Boulder peaked with 130 reported Sept. 17, just 32 were added Sept. 28 and 14 the day after that.
“We are continuing to monitor the data and discussing the options and timing for lifting orders or the need for further mitigation strategies, should they be needed,” Gousettis said.
Most recently, those strategies have included banning gatherings of multiple students. A public health order first issued Sept. 24 made it illegal for Boulder residents between the ages of 18 and 22 to gather with anyone from a different household.
Community members pushed back, arguing that presented safety concerns for students — and on Sept. 28, the order was amended to apply only to groups of three or more. The new version of the public health order also creates exemptions for people who need to go to work or obtain essential services.
Student government lobbies for amendment
One group pushing for such an amendment was the University of Colorado Boulder Representative Council, part of CU’s student government. In a Sept. 27 letter that rapidly circulated on social media, the council wrote that the public health order had “overlooked important factors” related to safety.
“The City of Boulder has consistently failed to protect young women from harassment, threats, or harm in their own neighborhoods,” the students wrote. “As long as the young women of this University must fear for their safety, the City of Boulder has no right to prohibit them from taking even a single companion with them as they walk their dog, exercise, or carry out any number of essential activities.”
The council also pointed out that many students don’t have cars and rely on friends for transportation to work, medical appointments or the grocery store.
“The rise in positive cases needs to be curbed, this is not in dispute,” they wrote. “However the City of Boulder’s approach to doing so is dehumanizing, plain and simple.”
Boulder County Public Health amended the order after receiving feedback from CU Boulder students, parents and the general community, Gousettis said.
Emmett Grundberg, the legislative council press secretary for University of Colorado Student Government, was pleased with the changes.
The letter “really helped us rally a lot of public pressure,” he said, explaining that though the council didn’t have any direct conversations with local officials, parents of CU students who saw the letter on social media helped advocate to Boulder County Public Health for the change.
A new normal on campus
Freshman Braden Bleike, 18, who’s still living on campus, agrees that the amendment to the original public health order was needed. But regardless of whether or not he can meet with one other person besides his roommate, campus life has been pretty bleak.
“I’m basically in my dorm all day long,” Bleike said. “There’s not much to do here besides doing your homework and like, sleeping.”
Students can’t eat in the dining hall — they must pick up meals to go instead — or study in groups of more than two. All this makes it pretty hard to enjoy college and meet new people, Bleike said. Still, he thinks the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the virus are more than necessary.
“My overall opinion is that the school shouldn’t have ever brought students here in the first place, since they probably knew this was going to happen,” he said.
Patrick Owens, a senior at CU who lives in an apartment off campus, admits he didn’t take COVID-19 as seriously as he should have at first.
“The first week of school, everyone was just super excited to be back, and people were just going out all the time and hanging out with as many friends as they could,” Owens said. At the time, CU Boulder had asked students to gather in groups of no more than 10 people. (The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment allowed up to 100 people at indoor events. Social distancing requirements, however, only allowed about seven people from separate households for every 1,000 square feet of furniture-free space.)
Then, Owens got COVID-19.
“That was probably the worst week of my entire life,” he said. “So I do think everything the school is doing is pretty appropriate … I’m upset about not being able to go to in-person classes, and I understand why everybody else is going to be upset, but I feel like the shutdown could really help us.”
Still, he calls the public health department’s recent restrictions against 36 properties that house students off campus a kind of “public shaming.”
Residents are subject to strict restrictions that align with the state’s Stay at Home order, which applied statewide for several weeks starting March 26. The residents are permitted to leave their home only for essential activities. Each resident of the 36 properties was required to report their name to the city of Boulder within 24 hours of the issuance of the Sept. 24 order.
“They have quite obviously been targeting Greek life,” said Owens, who’s in a fraternity. He says not all of the properties targeted are fraternity or sorority houses, though many are.
Pandemic presents mental health challenges
Mental health is a concern for many students at CU Boulder struggling to cope with the pandemic, Grundberg said.
Student government is trying to make that a priority by making students aware of the mental health resources that the university provides.
For Owens, it’s the feeling that the mood on campus has changed for the worse that really bothers him.
“It’s been very, very hard being so isolated, and I think the biggest part for me is that it seems like we’re all just kind of scared of each other now,” Owens said. “You’re supposed to wear a mask on campus, and I’ll see people that aren’t wearing masks, and people walk 20 feet away from them. And it just kind of seems like there’s a lack of community … Boulder doesn’t feel as happy anymore.”
His biggest concern: “I’m just going to be doing online school for the rest of the year and that’s how I end my college experience.”
Owens, an economics major, said weightlifting and maintaining a healthy diet has helped him stay mentally healthy.
“I noticed when I wasn’t exercising, when I wasn’t sticking to a consistent schedule, I fell into somewhat of a depression, almost,” he said.
Some students have responded to the changing circumstances by withdrawing from classes for the semester or taking a gap year.
The Denver Post reported that the number of students who withdrew from classes between the start of the semester and Sept. 24 had doubled from the previous year, amounting to 392 continuing students and 177 first-year students this fall.
Rohilla — a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major — plans to stay enrolled in classes no matter what happens, since her priority is to start medical school as soon as possible.
Bleike, an architectural engineering major, is considering taking the spring semester off. He’s worried that until there’s a viable vaccine accessible to the general public, a sense of normalcy could be impossible.
“I never thought it would get this bad here,” he said.