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An Open Letter to College Students as you Return to Campus in the Time of COVID-19

Region IV-W
August 20, 2020 Heather French St. Louis College of Pharmacy

My Dear Students,

As colleges prepare to resume operations this fall, whether that be on-ground or on-line or some manner in between, please know that you are not alone in navigating this strange and uncertain time. Although I wish I could provide you reassurance that everything will go smoothly, the truth is that no one has a crystal ball to see what our world will look like even a few months from now. In fact, you are blazing trails, my dear students. You and your classmates are setting precedence and shaping the future of higher education at this very moment! While this is truly exciting, (you are making history after all!), you may also find yourself feeling scared or nervous or even disappointed that you may not experience college the way you envisioned. And whatever you are feeling as you prepare to start the academic year is absolutely valid. Let me say that again. These last several months have been a rollercoaster of emotions for many of us, and any way that you may be feeling at this very moment is completely understandable. What I do hope may bring you some solace, however, is knowing that your peers will be charting this course with you, and that you are not alone. And if you are heading to campus this fall, I have a few messages especially for you.

First, it is really important that we begin to get in the mindset that things are going to look and feel pretty different on campus, and that’s ok. I sincerely wish that the familiarity of your second home will help you feel warmly welcomed back. However, it is also true that you will find there are certain aspects of the physical campus that have been transformed in order to prepare for as safe a return as possible. Furniture has been rearranged to allow for safe social distance, plastic barriers have been secured into place, stanchions and signage direct where to stand and how traffic should flow. It’s familiar, yet different. We hope you feel the sense of homecoming, and yet we recognize that it’s not quite how you last left it.

Second, being able to reconnect with your fellow students, and the opportunity to make new friends will always be a part of the collegiate experience. This year, rather than campus-wide events that draw crowds with their vibrancy and excitement, this will take the shape of smaller, more intimately-sized group gatherings where students wear masks and space themselves six feet apart. Even beloved campus traditions will need to be put on the back burner until large-scale activities can resume at some point in the future. In their place for the time being will be the newest type of large group gathering that you’re likely familiar with by now: the virtual meet-up. And there are sure to be lots and lots of virtual meet-ups. So, make the most of it! Customize your backgrounds, come dressed in theme, the sky is the limit!

Third, the classroom environment will also have its own unique pandemic modifications. Faculty will don masks to speak behind plexiglass podiums, there will be reduced-capacity classrooms with socially-distanced seating assignments, and more bottles of cleaning solution than whiteboard markers. Students will wear masks everywhere, including while learning, in small-group activities and during test-taking. This is the new reality in which you all must now enter the classroom or lab setting, ready to participate and engage. And it will likely take some getting used to, as you adjust to learning in this strangely familiar yet altered environment.

Fourth, though I truly believe your college leaders have done their best to prepare campus for your safe return, it is not possible to create a completely risk-free environment in the time of COVID-19, and there is still so much to learn about the ripple effects that something of this magnitude may have on various facets of campus life. Therefore, it requires every single staff and faculty member, and each and every one of you, my dear students, to be vigilant. We may not simply put our heads in the sand and wish it all away, because COVID-19 is not leaving and our campuses are not immune. We must remain diligent in our mask-wearing and hand-washing, because we’ve seen this pandemic spread like wild-fire, and our campuses are not safe from the storm. As much as it is in our nature to commune with other human beings, we must do so at a distance, and in small groups so as to not put ourselves in situations where unknowing carriers could infect multiple people. If we allow ourselves to become complacent and stop adhering to these safety measures because we are tired, or because we think no one is looking, or because we just want life to go back to the way it used to be, it is all over for us on campus. It really is that simple.

Fifth, I know this is a lot, but it won’t be like this forever. It will probably feel strange having all of these new guidelines in place, and it may be difficult at first to remember the new things we need to incorporate into our daily routines, but it’s a path forward. And in order for us to get beyond our current situation, we all must rely on each other to keep one another safe. The good news is that these guidelines are able to be followed by anyone! These are all such small and simple gestures, but they have proven effective at stopping the spread. And realistically, you’ve probably been doing these things since last spring. Even still, you may still be worried. So, if you are feeling the weight of it all right now, I invite you to take a big deep breath with me. Really, right now. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. Yes! You’ve got this. And let me remind you again as I did in the beginning that you are not alone. Every single student stepping foot on a college campus anywhere this fall will be experiencing it just like you. And you know what? You already have everything you need to be successful inside of you. After all, you have been navigating living in pandemic times since last spring, right? I told you that you were all trailblazers!

Finally, please also know that you will have an entire campus of people supporting you and cheering you on along the way. We are here to support you, both face-to-face and virtually, and want to make sure that you have everything you need to succeed. From your faculty and your coaches, to your advisors and counselors, to the housekeepers and dining staff and groundskeepers, and the entire Student Affairs team, we cannot wait to see you. You have likely heard the phrase before, “home is where the heart is.” Well our campuses are where our students are, and YOU ARE THE HEART OF OUR INSTITUTIONS, my dear students.

Before I close I have one last request. As you are doing that last bit of packing, be sure to give your loved ones an extra hug and promise to text them back every once in a while. These are stressful and challenging times for all of us, and they are sending you off under far different circumstances than any of us imagined. Reassure them that you will do your very best to keep yourself and others safe. We will all hope for the best but need to be prepared for the worst, so be sure to also include a few COVID-19 essentials in your bag like extra face coverings, a thermometer, ibuprofen, and anything else that brings you comfort if you do happen to get sick. (And if that happens, remember you will not be alone and there are people on campus to support you. See previous paragraph.)

I hope that by now you realize you have the capacity to get through this, as well as the opportunity to help us reimagine how we do things on campus! So let’s make history together this fall, being flexible and adaptable as we go… because if there is one thing that we know for sure, it is that we can expect there will be more changes to come. So I will close by simply saying that I am so looking forward to seeing you soon, my dear students. And if you’re not sure how to spot me in the halls, I will be the one smiling from behind my mask, eyes brimming slightly with tears, offering air fives to students that pass by, and affirming “my goodness, how we have missed you.”

From My Heart to Yours,