Life in the ‘bubble’: Amherst College students feeling locked down but safe 

  • Jorge Rodas and Lucheyla Celestino, sophomores at Amherst College, talk about their experience living in the bubble the college has created in response to COVID-19. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Max Spelke, a sophomore at Amherst College, talks about his experience living in the bubble the college has created to allow students to remain on campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julia Shea, a senior at Amherst College, talks about her experience living in the bubble the college has created to allow students to remain on campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Jorge Rodas and Lucheyla Celestino, sophomores at Amherst College, talk about their experience living in the bubble the college has created in response to COVID-19. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julia Shea, a senior, at Amherst College, talks about her experience living in the bubble the college has created to allow students to remain on campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Max Spelke, a sophomore at Amherst College, talks about his experience living in the bubble the college has created to allow students to remain on campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2020 8:32:07 PM

AMHERST — While the COVID-19 pandemic has placed numerous limitations on day-to-day life, many people now venture out for outings and errands such as picking up takeout, outdoor dining or grocery runs. But for students living at Amherst College this semester, life is largely limited to a “bubble” surrounding campus.

At Amherst, students who chose to live in college housing this fall agreed to stay within a campus-centered bubble, outlined on the college’s website, for the duration of the semester. Protocols allow limited exceptions for circumstances such as medical appointments or family-related needs. But among other rules, that means no grocery runs — instead, students have all of their meals provided on a to-go basis by college dining services. No off-campus walks or bike rides beyond the campus bubble, which includes a portion of the Norwottock Rail Trail. And until recently, no food delivery from outside restaurants — even now, deliveries are limited to those from restaurants working with a company partnering with the college.  

For students on campus, living within the bubble can be challenging. But for many, these sacrifices are worth it, according to students who spoke with the Gazette on Monday. 

Living within the college’s bubble has been “bittersweet,” said sophomore Lucheyla Celestino. 

“I feel like the college is taking the best precautions possible,” Celestino said, “but the bitter part is being barely able to do anything.”

Still, Celestino is thankful to be on campus, she said, and to be living with friends in what feels like a reasonably safe environment.  

Jorge Rodas, also a sophomore, echoed Celestino’s sentiment. 

“I’m really grateful,” Rodas said, adding that amid the pandemic, “I’ve never felt safer anywhere else in the U.S. than here.”

By the numbers

So far, the college’s number of COVID-19 cases has stayed low — as of Tuesday, three students have tested positive since mid-July, in addition to two staff members, according to the college’s COVID-19 dashboard. In addition to staying on campus, students also undergo COVID-19 testing three times a week, and faculty and staff who work on campus are tested once or twice per week, depending on how much time they spend on college grounds. 

The college also limited the number of students allowed back on campus, welcoming mostly freshmen and sophomores back while the majority of juniors and seniors wait for their turn in the spring semester. While some of these students take in-person classes, others complete their studies in a totally remote capacity while living on campus.

Through consulting with public health and safety experts, the college’s administration “came to the conclusion that the bubble approach was the best, and possibly the only, way to limit the spread of the virus through a community,” Amherst President Biddy Martin said Wednesday.

“We have been able to take the measures that were necessary because of scale, resources and cooperation by the members of the campus community,” she wrote via email.

And despite the limitations implemented by the bubble, many students did want to return to campus. According to an Oct. 7 update from Biddy posted to the college website, 368 members of the freshman class decided to come to campus, while 65 are learning remotely. Overall, 940 students opted to live on campus this semester. 

To Rodas and Celestino, the college’s bubble approach is “100% working,” which they believe is largely thanks to student compliance. Maintaining the bubble largely relies on the honor system and student reports, according to Rodas. 

“The sentiment is that we don’t want to leave,” he said, and violating the code is “not worth it in the long run.”

Rodas also believes that the small cohort of on-campus students has played a large role in the model’s success so far.

“They got the right amount of people, and the right kind of people,” Rodas said.

Celestino agreed, adding that students feel a responsibility towards their professors — some of whom may be older or have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infection — and to each other. 

According to Martin’s campus update, students “have done a good job overall” of following protocols.

“Students grasp how important these measures are and many seem proud to be participating in their success,” Martin wrote in the campus update. While some have requested that college officials relax certain requirements, others ask for greater enforcement, according to Martin. 

Creating a perfect bubble is not possible, Martin noted. Violations of varying degrees of severity have occurred, she told the Gazette on Wednesday, sometimes leading to disciplinary actions for students. 

“When issues arise, our student affairs staff respond with a keen awareness that the restrictions we have in place are difficult for students,” Martin wrote via email. “Students have also been held responsible for serious violations.”

But ultimately, Martin believes that the adherence to the protocols by students, faculty and staff have been just as important as the bubble approach itself to keeping cases under control.

While the college’s numbers so far are low, Martin said in the campus update that students should not expect that college officials will  significantly relax measures in response — “not despite our success, but because those measures are the reason we have been able to mitigate the risk of spread,” she wrote.

The college is considering an extension of the bubble approach for the spring semester, Martin said, and will provide further details in early November. Meanwhile, college officials “are trying small experiments to see whether there is more we can do to enhance students’ experience within the bubble,” according to Martin. 

Senior Julia Shea, who was allowed back on campus because she was abroad last fall and currently is working on her thesis, said she has noticed that students are “a little disgruntled, but responsible” when it comes to following the college’s guidelines. For Shea, life on campus felt safer than living at home, she said, noting that her family does not follow public health measures as closely as students at Amherst.

Sophomore Max Spelke agreed that students seem to be following the protocols overall.

“We all just understand the importance of doing everything right,” he said. And while the on-campus experience has been “a lot different than last year,” Spelke said, “the college has been doing a good job making sure everyone is safe.”

Elsewhere in Hampshire County, neighboring colleges have also enacted protocols to combat COVID-19, though none as strict as Amherst’s bubble. Hampshire College, which welcomed 550 to 600 students back to campus for the fall, has remained at zero confirmed COVID-19 cases. 

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, after recording a relatively low number of cases early in the year, experienced a spike in cases, largely among off-campus students, following a Sept. 18 off-campus party. The number of cases climbed to 138 as of Tuesday afternoon, though new cases have slowed over the past week. 

Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges did not host students back on campus this semester, with a small number of exceptions made for students in extenuating circumstances. Smith has recorded two cases since establishing its COVID-19 dashboard, and Mount Holyoke has recorded three.

Making adjustments

While many students said they appreciate living among friends and the added security of Amherst’s campus, living within the bubble does come with its difficulties. 

For Celestino, day-to-day monotony has been the most difficult part of the system: simple, once-unremarkable occasions such as walking to LimeRed Teahouse for boba are now a thing of the past, and Celestino even finds herself nostalgic over public transit at times. 

Many students have also taken to the college-owned Book & Plow Farm and the Wildlife Sanctuary, which are included in the bubble’s parameters.

The somewhat shortened semester makes the limitations of the bubble easier, Spelke said. This year, the college began its academic year slightly earlier in August and will end in November, with students sent home for finals and long weekends eliminated. Still, reduced socialization with friends has been difficult, he said.

Martin recognized that “students also find the restrictions extremely difficult — and there is no doubt that they are.” To better accommodate students, Martin said in the campus update that the college is ramping up its mental health services. Officials are also working with students to make some adjustments to the rules, such as the recent decision to allow some deliveries from outside restaurants. 

Beyond the bubble, the pandemic has thrown college life askew in general.

The increased screen time required for remote classes has been challenging, Rodas noted, posing both social and physical discomforts.

 And students like Shea simply miss the lives they led before the pandemic and feel the loss of the traditional college experience they had envisioned. Some students, including about 50 members of the incoming class, opted to take a gap year, according to Martin’s update.

“Part of it has definitely been missing what normal was,” Shea said, noting that the disruption to her senior year has been particularly difficult. “There’s a fair amount of grieving for me … It’s definitely been a bit of a mourning process, but at the same time that’s the least of the problems we have in the world right now.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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