Senior Kye Catlin wears a face covering as he studies in University of Wyoming's Coe Library in October 2020. (Jeff Victor/WyoFile)

University of Wyoming students are having a semester unlike any other. A phased return saw students arrive on campus in waves, gradually filling a campus resplendent with hand sanitizer stations, social-distance floor stickers and banners reminding Pokes to cover their faces.

Foot traffic around the university’s library, student union, and greens — bustling, well-trodden thoroughfares in any other year — has slowed to a crawl. Enrollment didn’t drop as much as UW officials had feared, so the campus isn’t empty, but it’s a far cry from the lively educational tableau one usually finds in Laramie at mid-October.

“You see what college is like in movies, and it’s weird being here because campus is pretty quiet — even with everyone moved in,” said first-year student Peri Hennigar. “But I also know, personally, I’m definitely meeting more people this way because I’m not the type of kid to go out to a party. It’s helping me make friends, but that’s definitely not the overall experience for everyone.”

An unprecedented number of courses are being offered wholly and partially online. Large student events — most notably Wyoming Cowboy football games — have thus far been absent but are planned to resume soon. Students are encouraged to limit their contact with people outside their dorm floor or small social circle.

The risks, rules and competing demands of higher education during a global pandemic have rendered a college experience those who attended UW in other eras would likely find unrecognizable. 

Some current students question their decision to enroll and wonder if it’s even worth living in Laramie. Meanwhile, school officials say students are skipping required COVID-19 testing and failing to abide by social distancing guidelines, helping to drive yet another outbreak in Albany County. 

Pandemics and parties

Just as the phased move-in to the dorms was nearing completion weeks into the semester, the university went on pause — suddenly shifting all instruction back online. The Sept. 2-15 pause was triggered by off-campus and Greek-life parties that sparked outbreaks.

The nature of those outbreaks — even now, most cases connected to the university are among students living off-campus — highlights the divergent behavior of students more directly under the university’s eye and those residing in the wider world.

Ethan Allagnon is a first-year student living in Downey Hall. One of the first arrivals to campus this year, he has been finding fun where he can, but that’s been limited by health and safety restrictions. 

“It’s become very hard to reach out and meet people,” Allagnon said. “I know the school is trying their best. But when I first came here, it was very difficult just because a lot of things are closed and everything’s online. We had to plan things ourselves a lot.”

Playing cards with hallmates in the common room, he might be reprimanded by a resident assistant for being with too many people, he said. Playing ultimate frisbee on Prexy’s Pasture, he might — and has been — chided by UW police for not wearing a mask.

A sign on Prexy’s Pasture at the University of Wyoming reminds students to mask up. (Jeff Victor/WyoFile)

Allagnon understands the importance of restrictions, he said, but when the pause hit, he wondered if he had made the wrong choice by coming to Laramie.

“Honestly if they had announced this during the summer, I probably would have ended up taking a gap year because that’s what I had agreed with my parents,” Allagnon said. “I mean, I’ve already started classes, so I’m probably going to stick it out.”

Allagnon has a literal window into the way students outside the dorms are behaving. From his floor he can look down on the on-campus Greek life houses, and what he sees makes his own reality harder to swallow.

“It sucks — I’ll be straightforward,” he said. “We as students can definitely see what the cause is. We live in the dorms and right across from the frat houses — we always see them hosting parties and stuff. I wish they would crack more down on the actual cause, instead of really getting strict with us. You know, we’re being safe. We’re hanging out with just our group and we get in trouble for trying to have just a little bit of fun.”

Off-campus student residences are even freer of university rules or oversight, as sophomore psychology major Taryn Paradis knows well.

“Because I’m an off-campus student, it’s a lot easier to take those warnings lightly,” she said. “I’m not being directly enforced on campus — and I’m not saying that people off campus should have that enforced. It was just very easy to kind of disregard those warnings.”

When Paradis moved into an apartment south of campus just before the semester, she began reconnecting with friends she had not seen since last year.

Paradis and her roommates hosted get-togethers at their new place, she said, avoiding contact with any immunocompromised friends, but frequently hanging out indoors in groups.

“I wasn’t going out, thinking, ‘oh, I hope the university doesn’t hear about this,’” she said. “It was more along the lines of, ‘oh, I just haven’t seen these people in months. It would be nice to catch up.’ And so I could have taken the warnings more seriously than I did. And that is my fault.”

Paradis tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before the university went on pause. She did not fall seriously ill, she said. 

“As a young person and being in shape and being physically fit, I haven’t experienced any of the really bad symptoms,” she said. “I think I’ve only ever had loss of taste, loss of smell and then I had a cough for a couple of days and a sore throat but that went away pretty quickly.”

Having hosted friends and potentially having helped to spread the virus in defiance of university guidelines, Paradis could be subject to student conduct proceedings.

That could include an investigation, a meeting and even repercussions up to and including expulsion. But UW hasn’t started any such proceeding with her, Paradis said.

Paradis thought she was being safe, she said. But without the constant reminders students receive in the dorms, and with the changing recommendations coming from the state level, “being safe” has been a moving target.

“Now that I have it, I definitely see where I kind of have been going wrong about it,” Paradis said of the infection. “I do wear a mask in public when I go out, but I have been hanging out with my friends. I think that’s the part I didn’t take as seriously as the rest.”

Taylor LaForce, a first-year student from Utah, is having a different kind of semester from Paradis. LaForce is following the guidelines to the best of her ability, she said, and hanging out with friends far less than she would otherwise. The fact that other people aren’t is frustrating to her.

“We all slip up sometimes,” LaForce said. “I wish people wouldn’t go to those off-campus parties that are responsible for putting us on pause in the first place. It makes me so mad. People were idiots and now everyone is paying the price for it.”

Learning at a distance

During a virtual town hall for students before the semester began, university officials told students some 800 courses — more than a third of all courses being offered in fall 2020 — had moved completely online. Even more classes were offering mixed in-person and online instruction, and others had been altered to allow for social distancing.

Most of LaForce’s semester is online, for example, with assignments due virtually and lectures offered via Zoom.

“Online learning is not really my jam,” LaForce said. “I get bored one day and do all my homework for the week, and then have nothing for the next three days. In person, it gets more spread out, and I don’t sit there bored, watching Netflix for five hours because I don’t have anything else to do.”

For junior student Kaycee Clark-Mellott, every single course is online.

“When I was coming to the university last year, I was looking forward to meeting people and going out and socializing and doing all that stuff you see in movies as the typical college thing,” he said. 

This year, however, “I thought, ‘do I even want to move back to Laramie and live in my apartment if I had all online classes?’ Because the only thing keeping me here is the social factor and that’s a little limited now,” he said.

During the pause, Clark-Mellott ended up moving back home to Cheyenne, where he continues to take his classes online. The move was partially motivated by the lack of social opportunities, but it was also prompted by something deeper — an anxiety about the possibility of contracting COVID-19.

Clark-Mellott had a COVID scare early in the semester that he couldn’t shake, he said. A friend he had seen tested positive, and Clark-Mellott had to get a test himself. Hearing about the unknown but possible long-term effects of the disease, he began isolating even more.

COVID-19 testing is available to students and staff on the second floor of the UW Student Union. The first floor, typically a busy thoroughfare between classes, is quiet this semester. (Jeff Victor/WyoFile)

“I don’t want to go out and see a ton of people,” Clark-Mellott said.

“Especially with the lungs. I ran in high school and I try to keep running and staying active. I don’t know how it’s going to affect that. Running in general — I don’t know if I’d be able to if my lungs were going to be hurting all the time.”

Online learning is more manageable for some than for others.

C. Rizleris is a graduate student in the Department of Communication and Journalism. In their mid-30s and with a background working in higher education, Rizleris knew what they were getting into — and appreciates the structure afforded by regular online lectures. Rizleris uses the pronouns they/them. 

“Having some sort of routine is really great through all of this,” Rizleris said. “In some ways, I feel like COVID has been a little easier because you’re forced to take this time to study — as opposed to having that social distraction of ‘we’re all going to go get drinks, let’s go.’”

Still, it’s not the college experience Rizleris was anticipating.

“Zoom fatigue is a real thing,” Rizleris said. “You lack that interpersonal connection that I really appreciated and loved about being in a classroom — the small group discussions, the little conversations you had in between classes or classwork.”

The stress of staying motivated and meeting expectations with the world outside looking so bleak can be a challenge, they said.

“It’s all go-go-go,” Rizleris said. “And it’s like, how much more can we go-go-go before we all just burn out?”

Winter is coming

Smoke from the Mullen Fire in nearby Medicine Bow National Forest hung over the UW campus in early October, blanketing the sandstone buildings with an ashy fog.

For several days in the past two weeks, poor air quality made outdoor exercise dangerous, taking away one of the more liberating activities currently available to students.

It’s just a taste of a coming winter that looms large in the minds of antsy students.

“We can’t be outside all day, because it is going to get cold,” Allagnon said.

Add in a continuing pandemic, a momentous presidential election and ever-widening political divides — and a student has a lot to be stressed about.

Rizleris is trying to brace themself for the coming months.

“There’s going to be a lot of stress,” they said. “And I’m trying to instill new ways to cope with that. I’ve started working out, and that’s been helpful. I’m sticking to a schedule, taking breaks, not just sitting on the computer all day. I’m not afraid to reach out for support if I need to. I think we can get through all this.”

Even university officials don’t know how the rest of the semester will unfold. UW emerged from its pause in mid-September. By the end of the month, it entered phase three, opening campus “to the fullest capacity possible.”

The University of Wyoming tracks COVID-19 infections and testing of students and staff on its website. (Screengrab/University of Wyoming)

Confirmed cases began accelerating, and today Albany County is a hotspot in Wyoming. As of Sunday, the county reported the most active cases in the state, according to the Department of Health, with more than 280.

“If the case numbers continue rising at the current rate, we may have no choice but to bring an early end to on-campus instruction,” UW President Ed Seidel wrote in a scolding Oct. 3 letter to the student body about rampant failures to adhere to guidelines.

The letter highlighted the university’s role in administering more than 16,000 saliva tests since the summer — it’s now conducted many more — as well as the current bridge testing program that seeks to test every undergraduate on campus weekly. But it also admonished the student body for not complying with university rules. Seidel also notified off-campus students that should they be selected for a test, they will not be allowed on campus without a negative result.

“Hundreds of students have not responded to personalized emails sent to schedule test times, or they have not shown up to submit saliva samples,” Seidel wrote. “Additionally, it is clear that many off-campus interactions, and some on campus, are taking place without face protection and physical distancing. As a result, our case numbers have been increasing at an unacceptable rate.”

The university’s plan since the outset of the semester has been to move entirely online following the Thanksgiving break. Whether in-person classes will be tenable that long is still unclear.

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In light of that uncertainty, students like LaForce are rethinking their plans to enroll in the spring.

“If spring goes all online, I’m honestly not sure what I’ll do,” she said.

With so much up in the air, students are trying to stay flexible, mirroring the approach taken by their university as it shifts between phases and considers future pauses.

“If this whole COVID thing is happening for another year, I might just take a gap year next year because that’s kind of what my plan was the whole time,” Allagnon said. “I’m just going to play it by ear and see what happens.”

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and...

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