COVID Diary #3: Life turns upside-down as the pandemic comes to campus

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

We landed at Logan on Friday night, March 6. The airport was noticeably underpopulated, just as it had been in San Francisco. At that point, though, I still didn’t think the coronavirus was going to cause too much havoc. I was happy when we turned the clocks ahead that Sunday, looking forward to another hour of daylight as a sign that the long (if mild) winter was almost over.

By Monday, my concerns were growing. Harvard, MIT and other schools had announced they were shifting to online-only classes. On Tuesday, my first day back at Northeastern, I attended a college assembly. We took one minor precaution — the buffet was canceled, and we were served boxed lunches instead. Our dean said she expected some sort of announcement from the president’s office. But we all sat cheek-by-jowl; we were worried about what was coming, but at the same time the term “social distancing” had not yet entered our vocabulary.

Previously I wrote that the pandemic came at me gradually, then all at once. The all-at-once arrived the next day, on Wednesday, March 11. During our faculty meeting, an email arrived letting us know that Northeastern, too, was going online-only. That evening I taught my graduate ethics seminar in person for the last time. Along with the campus shutdown, two more events occurred in rapid succession that divided my psychological timeline into “before COVID” and “after COVID.”

Weifeng Xu and me. Used with permission.

First, my students and I watched President Trump’s unnerving Oval Office address — the one that sparked a 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Futures even as he was talking. It was clear to all of us that things were about to get very bad, and that Trump — no surprise — wasn’t even remotely up to the job.

Second, the NBA canceled that night’s game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder just before tipoff, sending thousands of mystified and angry fans home. It turned out that one player who wasn’t even in the arena that night had tested positive. The idea that the game would be shut down over such a seemingly minor incident served to emphasize the seriousness of what we were facing.

For good measure, the married actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that night that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 while in Australia.

At first, Northeastern tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach, letting students stay in the dorms even as classrooms were closed. Within a few days, though, everyone was ordered to leave. As with many things during this crisis, it seemed like an overreaction at the time but inevitable and necessary just a few days later.

With students leaving for the semester, I decided to spend Monday, March 16, in my office one last time, letting my students know I was on campus if they wanted to see me. By now, reality had sunk in. I drove rather than subject myself to the hazards of public transportation. Walking through Ruggles Station to get from the parking garage to my office, I noticed that it was mostly deserted. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t there. There was plenty of activity on campus, though, as cars with out-of-state plates lined the streets so the students could make their escape.

In the midst of such a frenzy, I shouldn’t have been surprised that just one student came to see me. Weifeng Xu was about to fly home to Hong Kong, and she wanted to check on some assignments and say goodbye. She was graduating, but there would be no commencement. We talked a bit about her plans, she took a selfie of us and that was it.

The rest of the semester was remarkably smooth, and my students deserve all the credit. Workshopping and student presentations were done via Zoom. Weifeng, back in Hong Kong, showed us the electronic wristband she was required to wear while in quarantine. Maria Aguirre checked in from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the scene of one of the world’s worst COVID outbreaks. (She is now working remotely for New Hampshire Public Radio.) Other students beamed in from their apartments in Boston. Despite everything they were going through, my students remained cheerful and calm, doing good work and meeting deadlines.

Now we wonder what’s next. I already know that I’m teaching my undergraduate ethics class online this fall and will spend part of the next few months putting it together. I’m hoping I can teach intermediate reporting in-person.

But no one knows what’s going to happen.

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