By James Laverty
Over the past few weeks, students at Washington and Lee University have had a unique and complex journey navigating a new reality created by the spread of the novel coronavirus. For me, that journey ended where it began—in Lexington, Va.
8:30 a.m. Monday, March 9:
The week began like every week over the semester, with our 8:30 a.m. Beat Reporting class. It plays out like every class, with one exception. Our professor asks us what we thought about the commotion over the coronavirus:
At this time, it has not touched any of our lives. Most of us see it as a bad flu, and I believe it would pass. Some of us believe it is being a little over-hyped. Our professor says, “I won’t be worried about it until someone that’s young and healthy drops dead.” To me, it seems like just another CNN headline: no different from hearing about Russian collusion, impeachment, or the Democratic presidential primary. It seemes too big to grasp, and not something that would touch my everyday life.
Wednesday, March 11:
Little did I know this would be the last “normal” day in Beat Reporting that I would have for a while. It was jam-packed like every Tuesday through Thursday was this winter semester:
Somehow, I manage to fit in interviews with the mayor, city manager and city council members in between three classes, all before 2 p.m. The coronavirus isn’t even mentioned in those interviews. It is no more than a footnote at a city government meeting I had covered for that week’s story.
It starts to become real as I play-by-play on WLUR radio for the Washington and Lee baseball game that day. We learn that the coaches would be treating the game as if it were Senior Day, indicating they think it is a real possibility it would be the last game played of the season.
It starts to sink in.
In the middle of the game, we learn that the March Madness collegiate basketball tournament had been cancelled.
Later that night, while working on my story for the Rockbridge Report the next day, the NBA season is suspended for the first time in history.
That makes it real for me. It isn’t just another headline anymore.
Friday, March 13:
As schools across Virginia began shutting down, it only seemed like a matter of time before Washington and Lee was going to move classes online like everyone else. Classes on Friday tended to stray from any substantial academic discussions and instead focused on what would happen to us if the coronavirus directly impacted us:
From the time I get out of class until 8 or 9 that night, it seems like forever before the parties we presumed would be held. My friends and I have plans for the night, but we have a feeling that they could be thrown out the window at any time. Many of my classmates get started drinking early.
Mock Convention was the only other time in my Washington and Lee career when I had seen kids drinking and heard music blasting from my porch at the fraternity house before noon on a weekday. Mock Convention happens every four years, but the coronavirus is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
At dinner, we discuss what we should do about our formal next week in Harrisonburg. We had heard there was a positive coronavirus case in Harrisonburg, and we begin preparing to make a tough and disappointing decision.
W&L President Will Dudley makes the decision for us at about 7:30 p.m. All at once, everyone in the house looks at their phones and skims the email to get to the point—all classes would be online, and we had five days to leave Lexington.
For the next two nights pandemonium ensues. On one hand, there are a million logistical questions to be answered. How would I move out so quickly? Where would we go? What if our home is the worldwide epicenter of the virus, like mine in New York? What on earth just happened? Am I going to have to say goodbye to my closest friends three months too soon?
It all seems surreal, but over the next 36 hours, people embrace the final time they would have with each other. By no means is social distancing being practiced on those final two nights. Songs such as “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” blast over the speaker across third-year townhouses and off–campus party houses. Tears are shed. People hug. Busch Lights are cracked open, and even athletes rip one last cigarette with a pal.
Sunday, March 15:
I know I couldn’t go home. The town that borders mine, New Rochelle, was the origin of the outbreak in New York. The National Guard was enforcing a containment area. According to a CNN reporter on Twitter, New Rochelle looks like “a war zone in an apocalyptic movie.” The sight of military personnel holding large machine guns at the entry and exit points of the town is shocking and confusing.
Just a year ago, I had played summer baseball there.
My mom told me not to come home. She said if I did, the odds of my getting the virus were pretty high. She is a middle school teacher and said many of her colleagues feared they may have gotten it if children were as asymptomatic as health officials believed.
I now have three friends back home who have relatives who have passed away from the virus. I only expect that number to go up.
Luckily, the school allowed me to stay on campus. I am one of only 26 students who are still here. But Student Affairs decided to put all of us in one Woods Creek apartment building, one of the most cramped spaces on campus.
Others aren’t so lucky. One friend of mine with an auto-immune deficiency couldn’t go home, but his requests to stay were repeatedly denied. Luckily, he is able to stay with a relative who lives in Lexington. Another, with cystic fibrosis, is forced to return to the Washington, D.C., area, where there are hundreds of cases.
Since March 18:
As the days went by, Lexington got emptier and emptier. As I hugged my friends leaving the fraternity house on Wednesday morning, March 18, the loneliness started to hit. It was just me alone in a large house. Some of the sights were surreal. D-Hall was closed, and its equipment moved to Evans Hall. The empty Colonnade felt like an odd dream.
It was like a Lexington version of the movie, “I Am Legend,” in which Will Smith’s character is the last man alive after a plague infected New York City.
Luckily, most of the seniors remained in Lexington, and I have found things to do. This week classes have resumed online. Collectively, students have begun to find a new normal.