Letters from the dorm: Navigating the new normal of online learning amid Covid-19

Felix Yeung
  • Strict coronavirus prevention measures mean the school campus experience has been fundamentally altered
  • One student from Phillips Exeter Academy debates the pros and cons of returning to boarding school in the US
Felix Yeung |
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The coronavirus pandemic has changed the school campus experience forever.

In some ways, the start of this school year feels like any other. I’ve received my course placements and teacher assignments; sent welcome letters to new dorm-mates; and held the first meetings for my extracurricular activities. The one difference, however, is that, while my classmates move into boarding halls and houses, I’ll be here in Hong Kong – about 13,000 kilometres away.

When my school announced its reopening, my first impulse was to return to America. I had already endured four months of distance learning – which, for an international student like me, meant staying up all night. I wanted access to academic resources, the school library among them. And, more than anything, I missed the camaraderie in the dorm, the spirit of campus life, and the independence of boarding school. This longing may seem frivolous, but psychologists say the biggest disadvantages of virtual learning may be social and emotional.

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I was heartened by the low Covid-19 case count in my school’s county, amid the dramatic surge in cases in the southern and western United States. Additionally, I was confident in my school’s reopening plan, which involved rigorous testing, constant social distancing, limited activities, and mandatory mask-wearing.

Still, I could not shake off the gnawing worry in my stomach. Even in normal conditions, campuses can be breeding grounds for viral diseases. If the annual flu could knock out half my dorm, what ravages could the coronavirus inflict? One false negative test result, and there could be a surge in infections.

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What’s more, I knew that any decision I made would be for the long haul. At the height of a pandemic, even the most cautious travel plans pose a risk of infection. Reduced flights, unpredictable travel restrictions, and lengthy quarantines would also mean that flying home during breaks would likely not be possible.

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But, even if I were to go back, boarding school life would be different. Under my school’s regulations, students are barred from dining together, attending classes in person, and breaching campus boundaries. These are necessary and prudent measures to combat the spread of the virus, but they fundamentally alter the experience of boarding school.

As the start of classes drew closer, staying home seemed to make more sense. Still, the pull of school remained strong.

Fortunately, I have found a happy medium. My school has allowed me to defer my return until October. I will spend a month learning virtually, while observing the pandemic rules at my school. I’m trying to make it all feel normal, but, frankly, it isn’t. None of this is normal – and all of it is worrying. My return is in my classmates’ hands: if they adhere to guidelines and practise social distancing, I’ll find myself among them again. Until then, I must pray that our fragile experiment in reopening does not implode beneath our feet.

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