Rebecca Flieder

Northern Vermont University-Johnson student Rebecca Flieder in happier times, before the coronavirus crisis disrupted the lives of students two weeks ago.

I have tried for nearly two weeks to sit down and write. I have tried to record my thoughts and feelings, so you might understand what it’s like to be a college student right now.

I don’t know what spurred me today to make a manic push. But now I can’t stop typing until I’ve got it all down.

A forwarded email

• Thursday, March 12. Due to an IT error, only faculty and staff receive the email announcement from Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges. It says all classes were moving to remote instruction to reduce the risk of infection from the novel coronavirus.

An hour later, it is forwarded to students.

The looming nightmare is here: “if” has become “when,” and “when” has become “now.” In one fell swoop, all my hopes for the semester are dashed.

I spent the fall semester of this year with a broken back after I fell down a flight of stairs. Grandiose statements aside: It sucked. I sacrificed my well-being to pass my classes. This new semester was going to be my chance to be a whole person again. My pain was at an all-time low and my health was at an all-time high.

I am a journalism major and the editor of Northern Vermont University-Johnson’s Basement Medicine. I had goals for the newspaper: reformat our Arts and Literature edition; add more columnists; just maybe run every issue at 16 pages. For myself too, I had things mapped out: a 15-credit semester, a 3.8 GPA and then a summer internship with a local newspaper.

Now all of that is gone in an instant. Sure, I’ve got online classes. It’s not going to be the same. I think about all that I’m going to miss out on: Casino Night (NVU-J’s version of prom), late night walks on the trails, eating crappy food together. It’s all gone.

I worry about getting sick. I have asthma, and anxiety. I write an update about the email announcement for the online version of Basement Medicine. I go to my evening class.

It’s Funk Fusion, a performance band that meets once a week. We rehearse briefly, but everyone’s distracted. After we run through each song twice, I answer as many questions as I can. It turns out to be very few. There is so much I don’t know.

I go home and cry.

• Friday, March 13. Appropriately, it rains. Our spring break, slated for April 6-10, is moved up to March 16.

Strange vacation

I spend the next week in a total haze. I stress-bake, play ukulele, make art and do my nails. But it’s drudgery. It feels pointless and wrong.

Various professors and student advocates email me with new information about how our classes will work going forward. I can’t bring myself to call or email any administrators to report an article. I lose time.

I wonder if my partner and I will have to move out of our university-owned apartment. Originally, no. My request to stay is accepted the same day it’s made.

I do what everyone does. I panic-buy toilet paper, Lysol wipes, DayQuil and NyQuil. I’m not proud of that. When I go outside, I start wearing the salmon-colored N95 mask I bought two years ago in Burlington during an asthma attack. Now it feels too small for my face, so I layer it with a headband.

At Basement Medicine, we’ve decided we are no longer going to print. To salvage its online presence, I try to get into the office on the main campus to transfer files onto my computer.

A public safety officer escorts me upstairs. I unlock the office door and am hit with a wave of nausea. Once I leave, I have no idea how long it will be until I see it again. I whisper goodbye and lock the door. I head back downstairs and drive back to my apartment.

I try not to cry, but it comes anyway.

Escape into ‘Animal Crossing’

• Wednesday, March 18. NVU President Elaine Collins sends us a message. She says the faculty and staff are “working diligently to bring as much normalcy to our community as possible.” I get angry. “Shame on you,” I think. “Nothing about this is normal. Don’t pretend it could be.”

Beyond that, there is very little communication from the administration about what is going on. I check my inbox religiously, regardless. My anxiety exacerbates my back pain, but I do my best to ignore it.

• Thursday, March 19. The first two COVID-19 deaths in Vermont are announced. I have a panic attack. I attempt to stop reading the news. Reddit, Instagram and Facebook are just News 2.0. I have another panic attack.

• Friday, March 20. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” comes out for Nintendo Switch. I have been waiting for years for this game. Giddy, I play for days.

There is no pandemic in this digital world, filled with bright colors and animal friends. I can go to the store, socialize and pick flowers. One of the first clothing items available for purchase is a white facemask. I buy it, then immediately regret my decision.

Days later, inside the game, I will walk into my eagle-friend’s house and discover she is sick. In between catching bugs and fishing for sea bass, I bring her medicine. Once she takes it, she is cured. I am annoyed that I must also deal with disease in my fantasy world, but am glad it’s instantly resolved. I wish it could be like that in real life.

My back pain worsens. Between the thrashing nightmares I have every night and my lazy daytime routine, all the healing from the last couple of months seems to have been erased.

I spend the whole weekend in “Animal Crossing.” The real world is too real for me right now.

Zoom class and Go Pro

• Monday, March 23. School is supposed to start again, the first online-only day. Normally I would work in the admissions office and then go to one class. But that class has been adjusted and has no Zoom component, so I have nothing to do. I play “Animal Crossing.”

• Tuesday, March 24. On our second day of remote instruction, I have my first Zoom class ever. We attempt to review the midterm taken on March 12, the day everything blew up. The range of scores is wild — from low 30 percent to 108 percent. The class is a difficult one, and I feel wholly unprepared to sit in lectures over Zoom. Do I have an option? No.

I’m scheduled to help the admissions office later that day by recording a campus tour with a GoPro wearable camera. Most likely, these will be the last hours I work for the rest of the semester.

I log off my Zoom class and notice a missed call from a friend. I call her back. “Are you sitting down?” she asks.

She tells me the administration is going to close the residence halls, which I knew might happen. All the air goes out of my lungs. They plan to send the email later that day, she says.

I have a panic attack. Again.

I thank her through sniffles and tears and hang up. I have 35 minutes before I need to forget everything except how to run a tour and how to be chipper on command.

I put on a smile and try to keep the public safety officer who is accompanying me out of the shot. I make an effort to avoid the “COVID-19 ALERT” signs on the doors.

I know that email is coming. I just don’t know when.

I’m standing on the stage at Dibden Center for the Arts, showing the space to the GoPro, when a professor walks in. “Have you guys seen the email?” he asks.

I stop filming and try not to cry. The public safety officer reads it to me. I take gulping breaths and somehow I finish the tour. I sit in the back of the admissions office and call my parents. I cry.

I steel myself enough to drive back to my apartment, then I collapse before I can even close the door.

No guarantees

That night, we apply to stay for the rest of the semester. We have until March 30, six days, to get all our belongings out of the apartment.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” says the residential life director on the phone. “I understand,” I say. If we aren’t approved to stay, they will not extend the deadline for us.

I call the News & Citizen to report what I know. I am sobbing. In better circumstances, I would have written an article for them about it. Now I cannot even think of putting my fingers on the keyboard. I forward emails. Later, I make a statement. I cry more.

I attempt to make a list of my most essential possessions. Included are my nail polish collection, my ukuleles, clothes, blankets, some favorite books, electronics and a few sentimental objects. If I must pack up my life, I might as well be a minimalist from now on.

I begin the process of getting rid of nonessential stuff, filling half a trash bag’s worth. I haven’t the strength to do more.

It is an agonizing wait to hear back.

Tears of relief

• Wednesday, March 25. Halfway through the day, my partner and I each get an email. We are approved to stay. Summer housing is not guaranteed, though. We will have to begin looking for an apartment for after the semester is over.

I weep tears of relief. Crying is now a trend for me.

After Gov. Scott issues a statewide “stay-home” order, NVU suspends move-outs. Dorm resident students who were going to come back from home to get their stuff have had their access revoked. There is talk of housing refunds being issued, but no information beyond that.

• Thursday, March 26. I learn that the federal stimulus bill will give each adult $1,200, based on your 2018 or 2019 taxes. I have never filed my taxes before, so I do it for the first time. It is a stressful experience.

• Friday, March 27. I read another article about the bill. Since my parents claim me as a dependent, I will not see any of the $1,200. Neither, it seems, will they, because I am between the ages of 18 and 24.

Some trees were cut down last month on one corner of campus, and two streetlights were taken away to facilitate that removal. That means that nearly 200 feet of the road isn’t lit.

We take walks through that stretch at night for exercise. It’s pitch black, a physical wall of nothingness. We stop for a moment in the middle of the road, staring up at the stars. I am paralyzed by how small I feel.

I’ve developed a slight cough, probably from seasonal allergies rather than COVID-19. This is the time of year my allergies normally come out in full force. It’s just allergies, I tell myself. Just allergies.

Looking forward to looking back

• Sunday, March 29. That’s today. We go to the grocery store early to avoid other people. There are only a couple of cars in the parking lot. Regardless, I put on my doubled mask, then a sweatshirt hood over that. I pull the strings tight so only my eyes are visible through my glasses. There is toilet paper on the shelves — limit six rolls per customer. We buy three. I feel guilty, even though we need it.

I have to cough at the grocery store. I hold it in, so I don’t scare anyone. I feel that tickle in my lungs that precedes a deeper cough, but work to keep the anxiety at bay. I have no other symptoms. If I were to call my primary care doctor and ask to be tested, the answer would probably be no. According to the maps online, there are 12 cases of COVID-19 in Lamoille County.

I feel as though I am living in a fever-dream, swimming through a thickening fog. I am tired all the time.

I cannot predict the future. I cannot say whether I will get sick, whether I am sick right now, whether we all make it out of this with our wits about us. I can’t even say I have my wits about me now as I type.

It’s not all bad. My partner has helped me cope and made quarantine not so boring. Our parents and extended families are amazing. I have so much emotional support from so many people. I have food, water, electricity and Wi-Fi. I am blessed.

Something good will come out of this, eventually. Someone, maybe me, some years from now, will look back and point at the kindnesses we afforded each other while we couldn’t embrace. That is what I have to hold onto, white-knuckled and grimacing. This is what keeps me afloat above the black sea of dread.

Until that day of hindsight, I will stay in my house as much as possible. I will wash my hands and try to stay calm. That’s all I can really do.

Rebecca Flieder is a junior at NVU-Johnson and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. This story is provided through a partnership with the University of Vermont’s Community News Service.

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