By Lilly Stewart
With classes being almost entirely online for students at U of T, we find ourselves spending a lot of time in our dorm rooms. I live in Campus One, the dorm building on College street right next to campus, and maybe it’s just me, but it’s tempting to wake up 15 minutes before class, commute to my desk, and log on to the Zoom meeting. The routine of walking to class, being around others and making a few friends in my classes is impossible now. Or at least it seems that way. Pre-COVID, our dorm rooms were a sanctuary where we could have downtime and unwind.
Now, our rooms are a classroom and a study space as well as a personal space. I have to participate for a good chunk of my grade in almost all my classes because I major in English, so I’m attending all my classes in my room. I’ve noticed that due to classes being online, participation is worth more percentage-wise for my grade than it did last year, and there are more tedious writing assignments to submit on Quercus. It’s possible the workload is actually the same as it would be under normal circumstances, but my ability to focus has been hindered by the online atmosphere. Whatever the case, I have to force myself to leave my room and my dorm building every day.
Even though my peers and I are all in the same boat, we have different circumstances and thus handle it differently. For example, some of my friends and peers attend classes in the library or at a cafe. However, I have to speak in my classes, and I don’t want to wear a mask for hours on end, so I’m staying in my room with a do-not-disturb sticky note on my door. This confinement makes me feel restless and caged in, even though its toll on my mental health isn’t as severe as the 14-day quarantine I endured upon returning to Canada from the US. It can feel lonely, isolating, and hopeless at times — what if making new friends is a thing of the past until all of this is over?
Before COVID, our social outlet would be hanging out with friends or going out to let off steam—we don’t have those options now. Are we expected to stay cooped up in our rooms all year? The social aspect is a huge factor in the dorm experience. Dorms are where students can meet friends. I’m a third year, and I already live with friends, but due to the social distancing protocols and to the rule of ten-person gatherings, it can feel isolating in a space that is typically meant to be an exciting, thriving living area filled with friendly faces. Instead, the fun, lively atmosphere of the dorms is dwindling this year as people are mostly keeping to themselves.
However, students still manage to have fun. Of course, there won’t be any ragers any time soon, but for me, small gatherings are usually more engaging anyway. First-year student Hazel echoes this point: “Having to hang out with people in smaller groups almost means you can form better connections!” It’s true that COVID has forced us to take stock of our friends and decide who we really want to prioritize our time with. At first this seemed like it would be boring, but I’m noticing that it has shown me who I can truly count on. Plus, I’m not exactly lamenting the fact that I can’t go to a club, which is a pretty gross experience for me under normal circumstances.
Naturally, we still need to abide by the COVID protocols: we should be careful, keep gatherings small, and wear masks indoors. However, it’s unreasonable to blame students for socializing with one another in their dorm rooms if they’re living there together in the first place. The fact is, students are going to socialize and have gatherings. The question is, what happens if parties get out of hand? In Waterloo, a house party of 100 students was broken up by police, and three students were charged and fined (CTV). What if something like this were to happen at UofT? Of course, house parties are different from dorm parties, particularly in scale, but there is still a risk, and the students violating health protocols should be reprimanded to discourage future attempts.
Aside from the unfortunate but understandable lack of social options, meal plans and cafeterias have also changed drastically in dorms due to COVID-19. For example, the meal plans cost the same while the food options are highly limited due to safety precautions. The cafeteria in Campus One during pre-COVID times had a salad bar, 4 meal stations, packaged food such as granola bars and chips, and refrigerated drinks. Now, there are only 2 meal stations, no salad bar, and a more limited selection of packaged foods and fruits. Thankfully, I have a kitchen, so I’m able to buy apples and bananas downstairs at the cafeteria, and go to the grocery store for pretty much everything else I need. But what about those who don’t have a kitchen or who have dietary restrictions? There’s still no clear answer to this. I imagine people without a kitchen are ordering in quite a few of their meals when the options in the cafeteria are unappealing.
Like dorm life’s current lack of a social aspect, the lack of food options is quite frustrating, but also understandable. Food preparation is one of the easiest ways to unintentionally or unknowingly transmit COVID-19. For example, in the first few weeks of the semester, a worker at the Campus One cafeteria tested positive for the virus, and the cafeteria was shut down for two days to be cleaned and sanitized. While it can sometimes seem like the virus is far away, it’s lurking around every corner, so we all need to adjust accordingly. I empathize with the fact that this is in no way an easy feat, especially for some with more extreme circumstances, but we can only do our part and try our best to be patient. The necessary adjustments can be frustrating and can have adverse effects on our daily routine, social life, academics, and mental health. Finding moments for human interaction and fresh air are a must. It’s important to focus on and appreciate the shreds of normalcy that we do still have amidst the chaos.