When Boston College students returned to campus on March 9, more than 30 universities around the nation had moved classes online. Something was already in the air.
Anxiety was building up on the BC campus. As I walked from Lower to Gasson, the word “coronavirus” seemed to pop up in every conversation overheard.
Texts swamped group chats, coughs turned heads, friends hesitated to hug each other. “Mass hysteria on a college campus is not fun,” said Lexie Slotterback, MCAS ‘22.
The faculty was in the dark, too. Some professors had responded to concerns by moving their own classes online and encouraging students with flu-like symptoms to stay home.
The Center for Teaching Excellence sent out an email on Monday with guides that would help faculty to teach remotely “should the need arise.”
“I have not seen anything of this magnitude before,” said Journalism Professor Jon Marcus, who has covered higher education for years, about universities sending students home. “We are dealing with something completely unprecedented here.”
The administration remained silent.
A Change.org petition calling for the university to temporarily move all classes online had received more than 1,500 signatures by Monday night.
On March 10, Massachusetts confirmed 51 new cases of COVID-19 and declared a state of emergency. Harvard and MIT closed that afternoon.
Will all classes move online? Is anyone infected? Will students be required to leave? Many asked.
Still, nothing from the university. Rumors started spreading.
That afternoon, Adjunct Professor Chokdee Rutirasiri emailed his students saying that BC would “make the official announcement [Wednesday] morning to move classes online.”
A screenshot of the email soon spread on social media. Barstool Boston College, an Instagram account with more than 6,000 followers, also reposted the photo.
According to another widespread rumor, a student had tested positive for the virus at University Health Services, contributing to the frenzy.
“I tried to ask for more clarification but was told I needed to leave,” said Lucas Carroll, MCAS ‘22 and staff writer for The Gavel. “As I was leaving a student stopped me and asked if it’s true, that there are confirmed cases. I told her I’m not sure, and she said she’s terrified about the whole situation.”
“I called the head of Brookline’s health department, but she did not pick up,” Carroll said of his attempt to gather more information. “It was very clear on her answering machine that she’s going to be on vacation till the 16th and won’t check her answering machine before that.”
“Senior administrators have been closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19, and the guidelines issued by the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health. We are also in close contact with institutions of higher learning in the Greater Boston area,” said Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn in an email to a reporter from The Heights who had reached out earlier.
Dunn did not respond to an email requesting comments.
“I hate all the rumors that crop up when the administration doesn’t say anything,” said Quinn Usry, MCAS ‘22.
The air on campus was dense. On my way back to Vandy, I saw students gathered in pockets outside the dorms. Some paced in circles, talking on the phone. Some kept peeking in the direction of UHS.
Later that evening, students finally received an official statement from the university in the form of Tweets.
“At this time, there have been no reported cases of Coronavirus at Boston College,” the university tweeted later that night.
Some seniors worried that the outbreak would affect what’s left of their time on the heights. “Coming back after spring break felt like getting ready to say a long, extended goodbye,” said Mary Elizabeth Mooney, MCAS ‘20, “and getting sent home soon would deprive us of that.”
The situation is also difficult for international students. For many of them, returning home would not be an option if BC chose to close its dorms. “I hope they would let us stay here,” said Ho Wong, MCAS ‘22, whose family lives in China, “or at least let us know what to expect.”
“At this time, Boston College remains open,” BC’s official twitter account stated on Tuesday evening. “Decisions made by the administration will be disseminated by the University.”
The Tweet also attached a screenshot of an email from Professor Rutirasiri retracting his earlier statement.
“Poor guy,” an unidentified student at Late Night said. “He sounds like he wrote that email with a gun to his head.”
More than 70 comments flooded the thread within an hour, most of which were from students asking the administration for clarification.
The account did not respond. The campus went to sleep uneasily.
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on Wednesday. Northeastern, BU, UMass Boston, and 16 other schools in Boston had moved classes online.
“Keeping students on campus is the most sensible course of action at this point,” said Professor of Biology Philip Landrigan in a phone interview that morning. “The last thing I would do is to make students travel home and get infected or infect other people on the way.”
“Avoid extraneous gatherings like large lectures, which increase exposure,” said Landrigan, who had been briefing the administration. He sounded confident. “Switching classes online will help, so will other common-sense preventive measures.”
“For average BC students with no health complications, the effects of the coronavirus should be similar to that of the common flu,” Landrigan said. “In fact, I have no doubt that there are already cases on campus, since the incubation period can last for 14 days.”
With still no official word from the university and the rumor mill churning harder and harder, Wednesday began with the quixotic hope that BC would tenaciously hold off on sending students home. After all, when it comes to snow days and other cancellations, BC is usually austere.
But the day would end with an earth-shattering email.
This article was originally released in May, 2020, as part of our special print edition, “Five Days,” one, final, tribute to the seniors of the Class of 2020. If you would like to view the magazine in its entirety, you can find the entire digital edition published here.