Reminders Abound of Lasting Social Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic

When the first floor of the library building on our campus was remodeled as a multiuse space almost a decade ago, it quickly became the favorite place for students to gather. From late morning through the afternoon, and well into the evening, it was always busy with students, who studied, hung out, or just relaxed between classes, sometimes alone, but more often in small groups of three or four. I, too, used to stop there regularly because the coffee shop served decent coffee drinks. I’d stand in a long line, which sometimes snaked out into the seating area, and listen to students all around me chitchatting about their classes, complaining about heavy reading assignments, and gossiping about their friends. Occasionally, a faculty colleague would come by, and we would catch up while waiting. It was a cheerful and friendly place where everybody knew somebody.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I realized I hadn’t been there for a long time and decided to go for a cup of coffee between classes. When I got there around 2 p.m. in the afternoon, the time when this area used to be the busiest, I found it nearly deserted and eerily quiet. The coffee shop was closed — and it looked like it had been for a while — so I sat down on one of the armchairs in the corner and looked around. I counted three people sitting in the main area and one near the entrance; everyone sitting by themselves and looking at a laptop or a phone. No one came in for about 20 minutes. When I was just getting ready to leave, one student came through the main door.

As I walked back to my office, I looked around the beautifully manicured campus and saw very few people out and about. Where is everyone, I wondered, on such a pleasant autumn afternoon? It suddenly occurred to me that our campus had been this way ever since we returned from the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to school closures all around the world, and our campus shut down in late March of 2020. When we finally returned in August 2021, after a year of online teaching and learning, we were required to wear masks and maintain social distance, with no large gatherings for another six months. It used to be strange to be on campus and to know that students had returned, yet see no one in the public areas. When vaccination became the requirement and these restrictions were gradually eased or lifted, people still seemed reluctant to return to pre-pandemic social behavior, preferring to spend most of their time in their own rooms with only a few people at a time.

Conversations in my senior seminar taught me how profound the effects of the pandemic have been to this cohort of students who started their college journey in the middle of the pandemic. They spoke of the feelings of being “robbed” of their chance at the rite of passage: no high school graduation, a false start to their much-anticipated college experience, and the strangeness of sitting in their same-old bedroom and staring at the computer screen full of unfamiliar faces. When the university finally reopened, some jumped right into campus life and felt relieved to be social again; many others found it stressful to be around so many new people after a year of nearly complete social isolation.

The negative effects of the pandemic were also felt in their academic progress. Students who choose a small liberal arts college tend to be more gregarious and are more likely to thrive in interactive learning environments. Conversely, they usually find online learning very challenging and become disengaged from the learning process. Especially during the pandemic, the lack of human contact hit their motivation hard. Some of my students shared that, in some ways, online classes were “easier”: just flip on the computer and sit there for 80 minutes without having to make much effort. They noted, however, they “didn’t learn much” because of the passive attitudes they adopted.

Most of my seniors seem to have recovered from the challenges of the pandemic year and are in a much better place, both academically and socially, than they were when they started their first year in college in isolation. And yet, the emptiness of the library and other public areas on campus reminded me that their patterns of social interaction may have been altered permanently by the pandemic. I know, for one, technology became a much more prominent part of nearly everyone’s day-to-day interaction during the pandemic. My students are from a generation that doesn’t even remember the world without the internet and smartphones, and they were already immersed in online social interactions before the pandemic in a way my generation never was. As much as they recognize the alienating potential of technology-mediated interaction, they are still more easily caught up in the convenience and ease it promises.

As they prepare to enter the next stage in their young adult lives, I wonder how they will build and maintain social relationships after college. Lives of fully grown adults are more hectic and fragmented than an average college student would imagine, and it takes an effort to maintain a full-time job, pay one’s bills, take care of loved ones, and cultivate fulfilling and meaningful social connections. My only hope for them is that, no matter how things may turn out in their lives, they will never have to sit in an empty room wondering where everyone has gone.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.