Still in Madison

For Students Stuck in Madison, Uncertainty and Isolation Gnaw at Emotional Wellbeing

Benjamin Farrell, a student from Brooklyn, N.Y. who remained in Madison during spring break was unable to return home after Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order was implemented.

By Ben Baker

It’s a crisp, cloudless March morning in Madison, Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team just secured a regular-season title in a year that could only be described as a David and Goliath story, Spring Break is fast approaching, and excitement surrounding the upcoming annual Mifflin Block Party is already starting to build. Not three weeks later, however, the vibrant campus in the heart of the Badger State’s capitol stopped in its tracks. 

The residence halls, once teaming with eager-eyed freshmen are now empty. The Terrace at Memorial Union, through which the laughter and chatter of smiling twenty-somethings reverberated, is now void of any activity and the picturesque Bascom Hall, which at one time overlooked the constant hustle and bustle of one of America’s most active college towns, now looms ominously over quiet streets and empty restaurants. 

The near total shutdown of Madison is a spectacle which mirrors that of cities, towns and college campuses across the country, as COVID-19, a coronavirus strain which originated as a regional illness in Wuhan, China rapidly spiraled into a worldwide pandemic in the span of less than four months. 

The wildfire-like spread of COVID-19 and the thousands of fatalities left in the virus’ wake prompted UW’s Chancellor, Rebecca Blank, to suspend in-person classes for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, closing dormitories and moving the 2020 commencement ceremony online.

Blank also set a fourteen-day quarantine for any students arriving in Madison who traveled elsewhere during UW’s spring break, and urged students living in off-campus housing to return to their hometowns for the remainder of the Spring semester. However, for many students, particularly those who live out-of-state, the choice between remaining in Madison or returning to a region of the country hit even harder than Wisconsin led them to remain in the city.

Jacob Pressman, a student originally from New York who chose to remain in Madison said he opted not to come home after he and his family decided it was safer for him to stay put.

“It was a really tough decision,” Pressman said,  “As much as I wanted to be with my family, I didn’t feel comfortable heading to the most densely populated place in the world during a pandemic and my parents didn’t either. Staying [in Madison] was a hard choice, but, especially now, I think it was the right call.” 

Still, other students who chose to finish the year in Madison said they now regret their decision to do so and said they only stayed behind because Blank initially floated the possibility of resuming in-person classes as early as April 10 before closing the UW campus until the start of the 2020 Fall semester. 

Students both at UW and across the country are now transitioning to a semester of online learning and grappling with the possibility of fall semester being taught over webcam. For many now stuck in Wisconsin’s capital, the emotional toll of a lost semester and harsh reality is overwhelming. According to CNBC, they will soon enter one of the worst job markets in American history, only amplified by a sense of isolation brought on by mandatory stay-at-home orders.

“I’m stuck in a studio apartment by myself,” said Sean Xiao, a student living in an off-campus apartment complex. “I try to FaceTime my mom and dad once a day, and I’m constantly texting my friends. I try to do at-home workouts to keep myself busy, but I’ve got to be honest, I’m going kind of crazy here.” 

The psychological effects of sheltering in place, particularly in isolation are palpable. The American Psychological Association linked feelings of chronic loneliness to extreme stress, depression and increased risk of premature mortality. The study concluded lack of social interaction could prove as detrimental to one’s health as morbid obesity, developing an alcohol dependency or smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

The effects of isolation on students stranded in off-campus housing are only compounded for those who are worried for the health of their parents’ in the midst of a pandemic whose victims are predominantly older adults, according to the CDC. While initial reports indicated senior citizens were the most vulnerable demographic to the potentially fatal health effects of COVID-19, it is increasingly clear that virus patients in their fifties are far more susceptible to lethal complications than previously thought.

“I’m just worried about my parents. They’re in their mid-50’s and that makes them more vulnerable to this,” said Kelly Heinzmann, an out-of-state student who stayed in Madison after spring break. “I know they’re not any safer with me home, but I just would rather be with them during this, because you never know.” 

Without a clear end to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in sight, and widespread speculation from health experts of a deadlier second wave of infections if the country’s economy is opened up too soon, according to the Washington Post, the possibility of prolonged quarantine has students like Xiao at their wits end.

“Staying here [in Madison] was a mistake,” Xiao said, “I need to get out of this apartment and go back home. I never thought I’d say this, but if I have to stay here too much longer I’m going to lose my mind.”