The Great Experiment: COVID-19, college life and learning in lockdown

  • Sabra Thorner, an assistant professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, talks about her experience teaching online with two young children at home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sabra Thorner, an assistant professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, talks about her experience teaching online with two young children at home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sabra Thorner, an assistant professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, talks about her experience teaching online with two young children at home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Rongbing Shen practices “The Hounds of Spring,” by Alfred Reed, in the common area of her dorm on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. Shen is pursuing a degree in music education and clarinet performance; with the campus effectively closed after the switch to online learning this spring, she practices most evenings in her dorm. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Abdullah Kawish, 21, who is a second year student at Hampshire College studying film, theater and media studies, sits outside the Jerome Liebling Center at the college, Thursday, April 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Johnson Chapel, Amherst College. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cameron Brodeur, right, of Easthampton is a sophomore criminal justice major at Holyoke Community College and works part-time as a cadet in the University of Massachusetts Police Department. Here he walks an evening patrol on Saturday, April 18, 2020, with fellow cadet Scott Kopacz, a junior criminal justice major at Westfield State University. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bennett Fagan, center, is riding out the pandemic in Maine with friends as he finishes his senior year at Amherst College. With him are, from left, Brandon Wang, Sean Mebust, Noah Jacobs and Jack Fergus. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Juniper Glass-Klaiber, a junior at Mount Holyoke College. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Note: This is the second of three narrative reports in a special series produced by Professor Kathy Roberts Forde’s “Longform Narrative” class in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The series follows six students from the Five Colleges and Holyoke Community College — and profiles select administrators, faculty and staff — throughout the spring semester as they acclimate to the new normal and question what comes next. Here are some of their stories.

Professor Sabra Thorner


Sabra Thorner, assistant professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, speaks softly on the phone as she huddles in a closet of her home in South Hadley. She is trying to avoid waking her two children, a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old.

“I think middle school and high school students can do better with homework and with online meetings, and they can hang out with their friends online. Friends I have with kids those ages are doing those things,” she said. “But my two kids, they just really need stimulation. They need entertainment, education. They need attention.” 

In between teaching her college classes online and handling other faculty work, Thorner and her family are creating art, building puzzles, cooking, reading stories and holding the occasional dance party. Life in lockdown as a professor on the tenure clock with small children “requires a lot of emotional and intellectual energy,” she said, as well as a kind of parenting that is more challenging than the pre-COVID-19 kind.

Thorner has received “a lot of support at Mount Holyoke to make the transition to online teaching and learning,” she said, but she is frustrated by the widespread social tendency “to continue emphasizing our productivity at the expense of our humanity.” She means productivity for both faculty and students, she said.

“Who can parent and professor in the same space at the same time?”

She worries about her students who face obstacles to their learning. “I have students that went back to homes all over the world. They’re in different time zones, they have varying degrees of internet connectivity and reliability,” she said.

A few of her students have the coronavirus. Some are caring for sick family members. Some students, Thorner said, “have little privacy, little quiet and have never had to set boundaries with family members before now.”

To help students in her classes cope with the transition, she has lowered some of her standards and instituted a more lenient grading policy.

The model of teaching and learning at Mount Holyoke has been fundamentally transformed amid the COVID-19 crisis, Thorner noted. “I think that teaching online is … it’s so different to the in-person learning and teaching and engagement and mentoring that can happen at a small liberal arts college.”

Thorner and her husband, an Italian immigrant and new U.S. citizen whose extended family lives in Rivello, a village in southern Italy, have paid close attention to news from that country, which has struggled with a large COVID-19 outbreak. 

“I really have this very vivid memory, and it’s been haunting me a little bit over the last month, of standing in our kitchen and my husband telling me [in late February] they were closing all the schools in Italy,” Thorner recalled. “I kind of rolled my eyes at him and said, ‘Well, if they’re closing all the schools, that means everything is shutting down, right?’” 

She imagined the logical chain reaction. “If children don’t go to school, then parents can’t go to work,” Thorner recalled saying. “If parents can’t go to work, then what?”

Dr. Melissa Rotkiewicz


Every April in western Massachusetts, as courses wind down and temperatures rise, college campuses spring to life. Crabapple trees bloom pink, and hibernating lawns turn from brown to vivid green. Students move outdoors again, soaking in the sun and playing Frisbee and pickup basketball.

But this April, it’s different: To some, area campuses feel more devoid of life than when the trees were bare and snow blanketed the ground. 

Few people worry more about this emptiness than college mental health providers. 

According to Dr. Melissa Rotkiewicz, interim co-director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH), “April is usually second only to October and November for our busiest months in the clinic.” Although the center has maintained most of its student client base in psychiatry, Rotkiewicz said its “therapy numbers” are down 25% from the usual April rates.

She attributes this decline to several factors. For one, CCPH at first refrained from taking on new clients as it adjusted to the new reality of COVID-19. Seeing a client visually is an integral part of the intake process for providers at the center. Nonverbal cues, such as whether a client has dirty fingernails or a strange gait, offer counselors important information, she said.

In addition, the UMass legal and information security teams initially restricted CCPH to telephone calls, but Rotkiewicz hopes Zoom calls, introduced on April 15, will help providers connect more fully with their clients. As it rolls out video therapy, the center will begin to accept new clients.

Beyond connections to the providers at the mental health center, existing clients have also turned to the resources they counted on before they reached college, such as family and friends, Rotkiewicz said. 

But some students, she noted, can’t rely on support from other areas. For example, some trans students don’t have access to necessary medical care or family support at home. Some international students can’t return home, due to financial constraints, government travel restrictions, or the fear they might infect, or be infected by, family members. 

Some students have reported losing someone to COVID-19, Rotkiewicz said, adding that CCPH is preparing to offer a number of programs to help grieving students.

Each of the Five Colleges, as well as Holyoke Community College, persists in providing mental health support for their students. The directors of the Five Colleges’ counseling centers have spoken weekly, according to Rotkiewicz, sharing resources and bouncing ideas off one another.

As the weeks of social distancing stretch into months, almost anyone is susceptible to depression, anxiety or lethargy, she said.

For Rotkiewicz, going for a walk during her lunch break has become an important part of her day. This habit echoes the center’s recommendation that people maintain a daily routine. Even something as simple as setting a sleep schedule can help to maintain mental well-being, she said.



Claire Lane, a senior dance major at Smith College, rises from bed at 7:30 a.m. each weekday at her childhood home in Greenfield. She grabs her foot roller, a massage tool used by athletes, and rolls out her feet. She then makes toast and tea. 

It’s a new day of remote learning in the era of COVID-19.

Claire pretends it is a normal school day. “I put makeup on and get dressed into something that’s generally coordinated so I feel more like myself,” she said.

Since March 14, Claire has been living with her two parents, older brother and a beagle named Marlowe. As the date of her now-canceled May graduation approaches, and the reality of her situation has settled in, she’s been feeling more nostalgic than usual.

“I’m getting more sad that we won’t have a proper celebration,” Claire explained. “I’ve been spending time watching old dance videos and reflecting on my experience.”

Claire’s online dance classes have been “one of the bright spots” in her days. She didn’t realize how inadequate her small bedroom “studio space” was until a sunny, warm day prompted her to participate in class outside on her driveway. “To be able to use the full width of my body and challenge myself spatially again felt so good,” Claire said.

Claire does most of her other schoolwork at a small desk by her bedroom window, often distracted by cardinals and blue jays flitting between a tall pine tree and a hedge. Robins have built a nest in the window’s awning.

Dance majors often spend the spring semester of their senior year traveling to auditions in the hope of being offered a spot with a company after graduation. This year, that’s not possible.

But Claire has been submitting her dance resume and artist statement to hiring companies. She has also been refining her dance reel, a video highlighting her skills and experience as a dancer.

Claire recently received good news: She had been accepted into the PeridanceCapezio Center certificate program, a two-year, conservatory-style training experience in contemporary dance and ballet. 

For now, Claire continues to apply to other programs to keep her options open. She said it is important to find a program that fits in her budget as well as offers her the most room for growth. 

After a long day of online school work and dance classes, Claire finds time to unwind. Around 4 p.m., when she grows weary of staring at her computer, Claire walks her dog in the woods by her house. 

She cooks dinner, a hobby she has picked up since returning home, and then relaxes with her parents and watches television.

“Even though the situation is obviously not ideal, I think the positives that have come out of it are that I’ve been prioritizing mental health,” Claire said. “I’ve been able to reconnect with family in a way I haven’t been able to for a long time.”



A black bed frame stands on end in a corner of the cramped room. A plain wooden cabinet runs along one wall, its shelves littered with half-finished cardboard props and tiles of green screen made from green duct tape and more cardboard. 

It is Saturday, April 11, and Abdullah Kawish, a second-year film student at Hampshire College, stands in the uninhabited bedroom of his Hampshire “mod,” or dorm, holding a flat canvas rectangle in his hands. He shows it to us through his laptop’s camera as we connect by Zoom. The homemade sign, crafted from an old tote bag, duct tape and cardboard, bears the Hampshire College logo and is a prop for his show, “Infinity News.” 

Abdullah produces and hosts the news program for Infinity Productions, the student club he leads with his mod mate, Luke Feletes. The oldest club at Hampshire, Infinity usually produces content from Studio G in Hampshire’s media basement. But the studio is closed now, and they have been forced to improvise.

Over the past several weeks, Abdullah and Luke have been converting their former mod mate Daniela’s room into a makeshift studio to continue work on Infinity, but the two have yet to create any content. Abdullah is reminded of Daniela when he works in the room. She brought an upbeat energy to the mod, and he misses it. Now, because of COVID-19, she is finishing the semester from her family home’s in California.

Abdullah is far from his own family during the pandemic. Born and raised in Pakistan, he had planned to return home for the summer. He is now uncertain whether he will be going. Flights back, usually around $1,000, were $13,000 when he checked several weeks ago. 

Abdullah hoped to spend the summer filming a documentary in Pakistan about the fourth annual Aurat March, a women’s rights protest that took place on March 8, International Women’s Day. The subject appeals to Abdullah because he wants his 14-year-old sister, Khadejah, to live a life free of the struggles their mother had to face. 

Abdullah will have to leave his mod by May 19, when the spring semester concludes and Hampshire residences close. He is depending on relatives in the U.S. and generous friends for housing, although he does not know exactly where he will end up.



For many, lockdown has slowed the pace of living. But not for Cameron Brodeur, who juggles two jobs while being a full-time student at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

Although he continues to work one shift a week as a police cadet at UMass, Cameron has picked up more hours at his Big Y job as other employees take leaves of absence due to COVID-19. Because of the extra shifts, Cameron is at a higher risk for exposure to COVID-19, so he refrains from interacting with his older family members. 

His work schedule, in combination with the transition to online classes at HCC, has made Cameron feel a bit behind. “I have had a hard time keeping up with work for my classes because I’m not the best online student,” he said.

However, his professors have been understanding, Cameron noted. “They have been very lenient with late work and have been supportive through this whole process,” he said. He is studying criminal justice.

To keep himself organized, Cameron has set up a workstation in his room where he can focus on online classes and homework.

Despite his busy schedule, Cameron is spending more time with his parents, which has kept him from feeling lonely and isolated. He unwinds by watching Netflix and playing video games to take his mind off the constant stream of pandemic news.

“It can cause anxiety to not know when this is going to end and when life will go back to normal again,” Cameron said.

He continues to look for the positive. “One thing I learned during this quarantine is that I can find happiness in myself,” he said. “I have done a lot of self-reflection during this time, and having alone time has helped me figure this out.” 



Rongbing Shen, a junior music education and clarinet performance major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, dons a mask as she and a group of friends head to the nearest Big Y for a grocery run.

It is a mild early April afternoon with clear blue skies. But Rongbing feels uneasy as they pull into the parking lot.

As the disease spread westward, news reports about attacks on Asian-Americans began to appear. Rongbing worries that wearing a mask, though a common practice in Asian countries, might be an invitation for trouble.

Rongbing senses people watching her group as they walk down the aisles. The paper towel shelf, she notices, is empty, save for a few boxes of a more expensive variety. Hand sanitizer, cleaning sprays and wipes have been hunted to extinction. 

On April 20, President Donald Trump announced his plans to suspend immigration to the U.S., ostensibly to reduce competition in the labor market.

“The music world is pretty competitive already, even before the pandemic,” Rongbing said, carefully considering her words. “With everything going on now, I’m worried I have fewer chances to get a job here than ever before.”

A day after his initial announcement, Trump said his immigration ban would last 60 days, applying to individuals seeking permanent residency (not those entering the country on a temporary basis).

Despite the swirling uncertainties, Rongbing tries to maintain a positive and upbeat attitude about her situation. She has found time to collaborate with fellow musicians from the UMass Department of Music and Dance, pianist Liat Shapiro and cellist An-Che Teng, on a project.

The group is collecting clips of people engaged in their hobbies to compile into a video, which will be paired with calming music Rongbing will perform with her friends.

The music is “Serenity,” a chamber work for clarinet, piano and cello, composed by CaitNishimura, whom Rongbing met when she visited the UMass Honor Band as a guest composer last February. According to Nishimura’s description of the work, it is meant to bring “joy and peace to people.”

The collaboration has presented several unusual obstacles. For starters, the three musicians are in different geographical locations. Rongbing is still at UMass, Liat is in Boston and An-Che is in Taiwan. To get around this problem, they are recording their parts separately and will assemble the components using Audacity, audio editing software, with the assistance of Liat’s father.

In their first attempt, they play to the count of a metronome, and Rongbing’s and Liat’s recordings do not line up perfectly. Rongbing records her part again, this time listening to Liat’s recording instead of a metronome.

“We want to collect people’s happy moments,” Rongbing said, describing her vision for the project. “Through the audio and photos, we hope to bring good news.”



Every day is mostly the same for Juniper Glass-Klaiber, a junior at Mount Holyoke College.

She wakes up to the sound of her alarm around 8:30 a.m. in her childhood home in New Concord, Ohio. If she sleeps in, Ginger, her 10-year-old sister, rouses her. 

Juniper gets out of her bed in the mudroom next to coats and shoes and joins her mother for coffee in the living room before her mother leaves for work. They watch the “Today” show or make fun of the local weatherman or talk about Juniper’s grandmother, 63, who lives alone in Maryland and tested positive for COVID-19. 

Juniper’s family and her grandmother had a Zoom call for Easter brunch. “She was joking that it didn't really matter if she had dinner because she can’t taste it,” Juniper said. Her grandmother has since recovered; she even returned to work last week.

Juniper begins her schoolwork around 9 a.m. Ginger has already finished all the work her elementary school teachers assigned for the month, so she sits next to her older sister and watches the video lectures Mount Holyoke College professors have posted online. Juniper enjoys teaching her little sister about physics and animal biology, especially the biology of creatures they find in a stream nearby.

Juniper posts her “to-do list” by her desk. Sometimes Ginger draws little pictures on it. 

Juniper’s brother Jackson, 14, has a lot of schoolwork. But, she says, “He’s also a kid. He wants to play Fortnite with his friends.” 

She said that even though taking care of her siblings can be a distraction from her learning, she feels it keeps her on track because she wants to lead by example. “So when I tell them that 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. needs to be, like, academic time, then I also need to sit down and do that.”

As the president of Mount Holyoke’s Student Government Association (SGA), Juniper continues to advocate for the students who no longer live on the campus as well as those who remain in the dorms.

“I really do spend a lot of free time on student government when I’m back at campus. So this is a little bit more of a return to normal,” she said.

Given the pandemic, she has reassessed her role as a student leader, believing that communication between the student body and the administration is key to the success of remote learning.

“I started talking more to the administration about student grievances, and they started listening more,” Juniper said. Since she sent an open letter to students and Mount Holyoke administrators on April 9, the college has created two administrative committees with student representation.

The first, a financial task force meant to determine how best to aid students in the coming months, meets every Monday. Juniper sits on this committee, along with the SGA treasurer. The second is an academic planning group that will begin meeting once student representatives are finalized.

With Zoom taking over as both classroom and meeting room, Juniper’s time in front of the computer has skyrocketed.

She began work on a recent Monday at 9 a.m., attending a financial task force meeting from 9:30 to 11 a.m. At noon, she met with two Mount Holyoke College deans to discuss the new pass/fail grading policy. Later she attended a virtual town hall. 

She spent five hours in front of the computer that day on meetings alone, not counting her coursework. She said she is “going to sleep every night with a headache.” 

As the academic year winds to a close, Juniper will continue to lead her fellow students with her little sister by her side and Mount Holyoke College over 500 miles away.



The smell of eggs and bacon fills the air as Bennett Fagan, a senior at Amherst College, gets out of bed at a vacation home in Maine where he is riding out the pandemic with friends from college. A generator roars in the background as coffee brews in an old machine in the kitchen. 

It’s yet another day of lockdown. Bennett and his housemates balance online class loads and try to stay inside as much as possible.

“We actually got a fat snowstorm the other day and are technically out of power and on generator power right now,” Bennett said. “Most of the state is out of power, actually.”

After an online class ends, Bennett heads to the garage to work out on an exercise bike. It’s one small effort to maintain a bit of sanity during the pandemic, he said.

“We play a ton of board games. We have a big closet full of them,” Bennett said. “We just kind of play them over and over again.” 

Bennett is disappointed with the reality of taking online classes, feeling promises by professors and higher ups have not been fulfilled. “All my professors went into this with lofty goals, thinking nothing would change and it would be the same course,” he said. “I think I’ve had two finals canceled so far and three different papers canceled.” 

Bennett hasn’t stopped learning since his classes went online. It’s just that some of his learning is no longer connected to his classes. 

One of his “quarantine buddies,” Noah Jacobs, celebrates Passover and let Bennett and his other housemates in on the traditions. “We Zoomed in his whole family, who none of us had really met,” Bennett explained. “It was wild. I’ve never experienced Passover before, and it was a lot of fun.” 

The generator continues to roar while Bennett and his friends end their day, cooking and enjoying a meal together. They head to the living room and vote on the next movie to watch. Afterward, they play video games until around 1 a.m. and call it a night. 

Bennett heads to bed, unsure what tomorrow will look like but guessing it probably won’t be all that different from the day he just had.

The situation isn’t ideal, he said, but he is grateful he gets to spend the final weeks of his Amherst College experience with his college friends.

Bennett doesn’t know where he will go once he leaves Maine. “At this point, I am kind of just waiting to see what the government says with protocols and public gatherings and travel,” Bennett said. “I don’t know. That’s a bridge I’ll have to cross when I get to it.” 


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