When Abby Sanderson tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 22, her first college classes were about to start.
But she wasn’t worried, she said. Her roommate slept in their suitemates’ room and brought food to Sanderson during the five days she had to be in quarantine. By the time the first full week of classes began that Monday, Sanderson, a first-year student, was free to attend in-person, wearing a mask.
Sanderson’s experience was markedly different from that of current seniors who recall getting COVID as freshmen in the 2020-21 school year. A shorter quarantine period, allowance for students to safely self-isolate in their regular living spaces, and less emphasis on close contacts has minimized the academic, social, and emotional costs of coming down with COVID on Wheaton’s campus.
“It was no big deal,” Sanderson said of her COVID experience last month. “My roommate was very helpful by bringing me food and encouraging me.”
Although COVID protocols have been relaxed for more than a full year now, the virus and its effects have not disappeared from campus. As of Sept. 6, 24 cases have been reported to Student Health Services (SHS). Despite the small uptick in cases, students and SHS say they are less concerned about the virus than they were four years ago.
According to Beth Walsh, the director of SHS, the college is following the same protocols as last year. Tests for the general student body are available at SHS for $10, while those who have received a positive result from their own at-home COVID testing kit can get a confirmatory test at no cost. Students who test positive for COVID are excused from classes for five days. As long as they wear a mask on days 6-10, students are invited to return to normal campus life after the isolation period.
Walsh said that her office is not as anxious about the virus as it once was. She said that for the most part, they are seeing people with COVID-19 exhibit symptoms of the common cold.
“Overall, people seem to be weathering it better,” Walsh said. “We are excited to get back to focusing on other things — like student mental health.”
Walsh said that approximately 30 percent of visits to SHS are for mental health-related reasons, and she cites the pandemic as a contributing factor to the uptick in those numbers. Because campus pandemic restrictions are minimal compared to previous years, Walsh and her team said that they now have more time to administer resources and assistance to students who come to SHS for mental health concerns.
This year’s group of seniors, the class of 2024, is the first without a pre-pandemic college experience, as the entire 2020-21 school year was affected by the pandemic. In comparison, last year’s senior class — most of whom began their college education in the 2019-20 school year — experienced eight months of pre-COVID college before the campus-wide shutdown in March 2020.
John Kauffman, a senior chemistry major, said that his junior and senior year have been much different from his first year on campus. When first-year students arrived in August of 2020, the college had effected COVID protocols (then called “COVID-Safe, Thunder Strong”), including required social distancing in classes, dining areas and residence halls, as well as masking requirements in all campus spaces with the exception of individual living quarters.
Kauffman said that the now-senior class’s culture suffered as a result.
“Honestly, it felt bleak,” he said. “Social events were either canceled or highly modified, and due to the fact that there was a pandemic, that’s just the way things unraveled. But it was bleak.”
Wynn Yeager, a senior biblical and theological studies major, also said that the experience of having COVID was much different during his first year. He recalled the then-weekly testing requirements, where students would spit into a sealed container and submit it to SHS via drop-off locations. Yeager said he witnessed some students being abruptly picked up from their classes or dorms, with little time to gather their belongings, and taken to East Campus (only if other quarantine spaces were at maximum capacity) if one of their required tests came back positive. If a student was quarantined, the college required they wait 14 days before returning to classes in-person.
“The atmosphere of campus felt completely opposite than it does now,” he said. “There was always this fear that you’d lose two weeks of your life, or that your friend would get COVID and then you would be possibly quarantined too.”
COVID-19 at Wheaton College: A Timeline
In August of 2020, students returned to campus for the first time since the pandemic began. Protocols were stricter, including required social distancing in classes, dining areas and residence halls, as well as masking requirements in all campus spaces with the exception of individual living quarters.
During the spring 2021 semester, all students self-tested for COVID each week. Once vaccines became available, fully vaccinated students were exempt from the weekly testing requirement.
In an email sent to undergraduate students in July 2022, the COVID-19 Leadership Team, which consists of administrators including President Philip Ryken, announced that the campus would be moving from “a pandemic posture to an endemic response” to the virus that shut down nearly all college operations in March 2020.
During the 2022-23 school year, mandatory testing ceased entirely, but Student Health Services continues to provide tests as needed. Students with symptoms who had not recently tested for COVID-19 were able to take a test at SHS for $10, while those who had received a positive result from an at-home COVID-19 testing kit were provided with a confirmatory test at no cost.
J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, ended the state’s public health emergency status on May 11, 2023, aligning the state with the federal government’s decision to end the national public health emergency status.