March in Athens is my favorite time of the year. The month brings warmer weather, blooming cherry blossom trees and spring break. However, this year, the concept of March in Athens dissolved in only 10 days as the COVID-19 coronavirus advanced across the nation.
On March 6, I eagerly packed my small suitcase with sweaters, jeans and boots for a spring break in Aspen, Colorado. As an out-of-state University of Georgia student from Fort Worth, Texas, I have become a professional at packing just the right amount in order to avoid checking a bag every time I fly from Georgia to Texas. I packed just the right amount of contacts for seven days, just the right amount of clothes and just the right amount of travel toiletries.
I did not bring any school books, notepads or supplies. I believed that I would be back in a short week, completely unaware of how quickly the coronavirus would change not only my life, but how our entire country functions.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was only slightly different than normal when I arrived. The airport was just as crowded as it would usually be the Friday before spring break. A few people wore masks and gloves, and the Transportation Security Administration workers would not touch boarding passes nor scan tickets on cell phones. I noticed caution, not panic.
On March 11, nine presumptive coronavirus cases were confirmed in Pitkin County, Colorado, the county that Aspen is in. In a small, compact ski town with international tourists, people were panicked. During one of their busiest weeks of the year, the ski lifts had no lines and there were fewer people on the mountain each day. Rumors circulated that the airport would close, everyone there would have to be quarantined and people would be tested before trying to leave. I got out just in time.
As the virus grew, the world froze. The University System of Georgia announced, “Effective Monday, March 16, 2020, all University System of Georgia institutions will temporarily suspend instruction for two weeks.” Universities across the United States were sending out similar messages. Fear and panic arose across the country, and my parents wanted me with them in Texas.
I canceled my flight back to Atlanta, feeling farther from Athens than ever.
On March 16, the USG sent out a message that stated, “all 26 institutions will move to online instruction for all courses for the remainder of the semester with extremely limited exceptions.” After reading this email, my eyes filled with tears — tears for the seniors who lost their last semester, for my friends who are across the country and for the alarming uneasiness that looms over our country and world.
In this vulnerable and unpredictable time, with more information each day, I’m struggling to wrap my head around what these upcoming weeks will bring. Only 12 days ago, the COVID-19 coronavirus seemed distant, intangible and unthreatening. Now, we are living through a future history lesson as store shelves are empty, stocks plummet and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 4,226 total cases in the United States as of March 17.
I am a 13 hour drive away, across three states, from Athens, with only boots and sweaters in the 75 degree Texas weather. I do not have access to my school books, notepads or supplies. Many out-of-state students and faculty are dealing with similar circumstances, and like them, I am uncertain on when and how I will get back to the blooming cherry blossom trees, to home.