From coast to coast, Emerson students return to Boston

Students+moving+out+of+their+dorms+in+March+2020

Photo: The Berkeley Beacon Archives

Students moving out of their dorms in March 2020

By Ann E. Matica, Deputy News Editor

This week, thousands of Emerson students are emerging from their month-and-a-half winter break to descend on the Boston campus for the spring semester. Across the city, the state, and the nation, coronavirus cases are hitting new highs.

On Jan. 8, Massachusetts reached the highest single-day total—7,635 new cases—since the start of the pandemic. As of print time, the state has nearly 460,000 total confirmed cases and a seven-day average positivity rate of 5.8 percent.

Those returning from the five states home to the highest Emerson student populations—other than Massachusetts—expressed trepidation about traveling and fear for the longevity of the spring semester.

CALIFORNIA – 417 students 

Junior Julija Garunkstis spent her winter break back home in Los Angeles, California, where she quarantined with her family and rarely left the house. A distant family member recently died from the coronavirus, a tragedy she says makes her even more cautious about returning to Emerson.

“The most ideal thing would be having fewer cases than we did last semester,” Garunkstis said. “Just to know that I am in a safe environment and that I did make the right choice in coming back to school this semester, even though cases are rising nationwide.”

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The L.A. Times reported that estimates show one in three people in L.A. County has been infected since the onset of the pandemic. On Jan. 16, L.A. County surpassed 1,000,000 coronavirus cases. The county, the nation’s most populous, has a COVID-19 test positivity rate of nearly 20 percent, more than double that of Massachusetts.

The 417  Emerson students hailing from the Golden State make up the second-largest student population from any state, after Massachusetts. That figure represents approximately 13 percent of the undergraduate population, according to college data from 2020.

During past years, Garunkstis would fly back home for Thanksgiving before returning to campus to finish out the fall semester. This year, she spent the holiday in Boston, away from her family, due to her job in the city and fears about flying.

“I don’t have the liberty to travel back and forth as much,” Garunkstisshe said.

Despite her reservations about returning to campus, she said she feels safer in Boston than in L.A due to better citywide mask compliance and accessible testing through the college.

“In L.A. you can wait [in line for] up to 10 hours per test, which is absolutely ridiculous,” she said.

A visual and media arts major, Garunkstis said she was grateful to be able to return to campus to gain hands-on experience in her classes. She said her worst-case scenario would be students getting sent home once again, as they were back in March.

“I don’t think it’s the safest thing to send however many thousands of kids back home on flights and stuff just out of the blue,” she said. “I know that all the students who are coming back this semester consciously made that decision, but then forcing everyone to pick up and go back home I feel can be kind of risky.”

NEW YORK – 323 students 

Sophomore VMA major Birk Buchen returned to campus early due to his obligations as a resident assistant. Despite his position at the college, he said he still feels uncertain about the outcome of the spring semester.

“I know that with these rising numbers, and everything going on in the world… there is a likely chance that we have to leave again like we did in March,” Buchen said. “I’m just trying to stay positive and go with it because I have a job to do and I love to be in Boston.”

New York has had an average of 14,876 new coronavirus cases over the past week, a drastic increase from the daily average of 659 new cases the state saw in August.

In 2020, approximately 10 percent of Emerson’s undergraduate student body were from the state of New York. Students from New York make up the third-largest state population at the college.

Buchen spent his winter break in Westchester, New York, once the virus’ primary hotspot, in an apartment with his mom. Buchen was separated from the rest of his family—his two older brothers—who live in L.A. and New York City. His brother who lives in New York City contracted the virus, preventing them from spending the holidays together.

“He and his girlfriend had to quarantine in their apartment, and thankfully they didn’t get [severe symptoms],” he said. “But they still got it, and it was still a big risk for me and my mom to be able to see him around the holidays.”

In lieu of their company, he created a “bubble”, interacting only with his mom and two best friends from high school.

“I can feel comfortable hanging out with that circle,” he said. “You know that if one person tested positive you are all positive because you just hang out with each other.”

NEW JERSEY – 232 students

Calvin Kertzman, a first-year VMA student, spent the duration of the break with his family in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, rarely leaving his house. His mother, who is immunocompromised from chemotherapy and Lyme disease, made Kertzman even more cautious about where he went and who he interacted with over the break.

“When you have immunocompromised family members, you don’t want to think about it, but whenever I go outside or something I’m always like, ‘I have to be really careful because I don’t want to kill my mom,’” Kertzman said.

New Jersey has consistently topped more than 5,000 new cases per day in the past week, a spike from the daily average of 313 cases the state saw when Kertzman first left the state in August. That surge makes him reluctant to engage with people outside his household.

“When you are out here, you don’t really want to leave your house because if you leave your house, one out of ten people you might interact with might have the virus,” he said.

Students from New Jersey make up a little more than 7 percent of the college’s undergraduate population, according to data from 2020. At 232, students from the state make up the fourth-largest population at the college.

Kertzman said he worries about the potential for students to disregard college guidelines or fall into a complacent mentality as the pandemic drudges on.

“Coming back is not going to be the same as the fall,” he said. “We just really need to hold each other accountable, and do it in such a way where it’s not seen as negative or toxic.”

His biggest fear of returning to campus, he said, is the potential of getting the virus.

“I’m worried about contracting it and quarantining at Emerson,” he said. “I’ve only heard less-than-stellar things about people quarantining in Paramount, so that’s nerve-wracking.”

After the end of his senior year of high school was upended and forced online due to the pandemic, he said feels lucky to be able to have in-person classes at all.

“I feel like that’s something that hasn’t been addressed enough,” he said. “Just the fact that being at Emerson right now is a privilege. I myself am very grateful to be in-person right now going to college.”

CONNECTICUT – 173 students 

First-year VMA major Noah Matalon, who hails from West Hartford, Connecticut, said he’s worried about students flouting safety precautions. With infamous Boston winters making outdoor socialization more difficult, he’s concerned his peers will turn to congregating indoors, as he remembered them doing in the fall.

“With the cold weather, more people inside, I’m just nervous because from my experience I know people were in rooms and weren’t necessarily wearing masks,” Matalon said.

Connecticut has had a seven-day daily average of 2,167 new coronavirus cases, a sharp uptick from the 124 new case average during the last week of August.

Approximately 5 percent of undergraduate students at the college came from Connecticut in 2020, comprising the fifth-largest state population at the college.

Matalon said he didn’t know anyone who had the virus before he left campus to return home for winter break. Now, he said his neighbors, multiple friends, and friends of friends have contracted it.

“I literally have not been allowed to leave my house,” he said. “Knowing what’s going on right now, there’s a moral aspect that you really shouldn’t be hanging out with friends even if you all are just staying home. It’s the right thing to do, to help protect family members and friends.”

Matalon said his parents will drive him back to campus from Connecticut, which has surpassed a total of 200,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic first began. The spiking case numbers in Boston, though, make him wary of returning at all.

“I think the worst-case scenario is that some students get so sick that there’s real medical emergencies,” he said. “I’m not trying to dwell on that when thinking about going back.”

FLORIDA – 161 students 

Junior political communications major Cameron Kugel said he sees campus as a safer spot than his home in the Sunshine State. He lives in Palm Beach County, where the cumulative case total has surpassed 90,000. The county has seen an average of 771 new coronavirus cases per day in the past week.

“I think I would probably be safer if I was in Massachusetts rather than down here,” Kugel said. “It’s like 7,000 cases [per day] for a state of how many people, meanwhile Florida—we have a lot more cases. If you look at the probability of me getting it, down here is higher than it is up there.”

The 161 students from Florida made up 5 percent of the college’s undergraduate student population in 2020, marking the fifth largest student population at the college.

Palm Beach County currently does not have a mask mandate, despite having the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in Florida.

“It seems like almost everyone I’ve talked to, they know someone that has had it,” he said. “I would say like two or three of my friends have gotten it.”

Kugel said that when he flew from Palm Beach International Airport to Boston Logan International Airport for the fall semester, the airports were packed.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be different flying up to Boston this time,” he said.

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