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Story and Photos by Lotti Bollattino
Yesterday after days of rain and clouds, a small cluster of students gathered on the bluffs near the green to take photos of an evocative sunset in shades of pink and yellow.
It was a sign, found in a round of Pilot interviews, of the remarkable calm most who are left on campus are feeling on the new pandemic footing.
“This feels like the calm after the storm, it makes me feel peaceful,” said Carolina Vilcapoma Batistini, a sophomore from Peru. “I just truly wish – and I am praying for – this to be over soon so that we can all go back to normal.”
“Normal” disappeared last week as campuses across the nation sent students home. Interim President John Williams sent all Principians home who could go home until pandemic fears subside. They drained out of campus between Friday and Sunday (March 13-15) and now there are just 54 – mainly international – students here.
For the spring break duration, they’ve been housed in Gehner and Anderson East, but will be allowed back in their own houses tomorrow night (March 21), says Mark Hagenlocher, assistant dean of student life. By Saturday night, a total of 69 students are expected on campus.
Students who couldn’t leave have kept themselves busy working many hours a day in dining services, at mail services, helping out facilities, or just taking time to keep up with homework.
“It feels like a desert sometimes,” says freshman Sam Robalino, from Ecuador.
But while it’s true that campus is fairly empty, other students who’ve stayed here during previous breaks say they don’t notice much difference.
The atmosphere, though, doesn’t feel negative. Some students express gratitude to be here in peace on campus. [Editor’s note: A paragragh was removed from this section because it contained an ambiguous, and possibly misleading, characterization not pertinent to the story.]
“I am glad and grateful that I was allowed to stay on campus,” says Gesler Joya, a sophomore from El Salvador. “I would not have any other place to go to. Principia put a roof over my head and food on my plate and that is awesome.” He explains that nobody is allowed to enter his country right now because there has been no case there of COVID-19 so far.
“I am just giving time to myself right now,” says Victoire de Visme a sophomore from France. She says it’s an opportunity to have some personal space and be able to collect her thoughts and find peace in a moment of trouble.
Within the limits of “social distancing,” students are gathering in small groups in the evening, playing cards and board games or watching movies in the living room. Last night, four students were playing Fifa on the big screen in the Gehner living room while others were playing Uno.
Some students are cultivating hobbies.
“I am currently reading a book called ‘Zero to One’ for startups,” says Joya explaining that he is very passionate about apps and business.
Others are staying in shape by going to the gym: “Now that everything is so empty, it feels like having a private gym” says Sam Robalino, a freshman from Ecuador.
The Principia kitchen staff is busy operating a deep cleaning of the dining hall and Pub. And a new “social distancing” set-up has decreased the number of tables and seats in the dining room, separated farther than usual. (New rules are listed in the memo “COVID-19 on campus info” posted on the Prinweb page and around campus.)
Yesterday, new hygiene rules were implemented, noticeable immediately in the absence of the bread station close to the oven. Anyone who wants a piece of bread has to get it from staff in order to limit public contact with the food.
“We have had around 30 students coming to breakfast [lately],” says Trey McCartt, assistant director of the kitchen staff, implying that the kitchen will now need to re-evaluate demand and how much food to order.
In the meantime the construction of the new School of Government is proceeding as usual and the access ramp to the Scramble Room has almost been completed with the addition of a clear barrier.
“Besides the hand sanitizer dispensers that have been placed all over campus nothing seems much different,” says Yenum Egwuenu a junior from Nigeria. “I have been hearing the news and it still does not feel real, we are so far away from everything here at Principia that it does not seem to affect us.”
Current plans are that teaching will be done in classrooms for the few students who are on campus and simultaneously streamed online for students elsewhere. But, says De Visme, expressing the uncertainties implied by the fact that she is going to be the only one still on campus for some of her classes: “I am not sure if teachers are actually going to come to teach.”