Buried in uncertainty, some UMD students struggle to keep up with school amid COVID-19

McKeldin Library, where many students study during the school year, on April 28, 2020. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

Julian Van den Berghe stared at his screen for more than an hour trying to write a speech for one of his classes, just hoping he could come up with an idea. But these days, he said, there’s a lot of other things on his mind.

“It’s just the huge change in routine,” the senior fire protection engineering major said. “[With] everything going on, my mind’s obviously gonna be wandering, thinking about all of that.”

Following the switch to remote learning, some students at the University of Maryland said they have experienced trouble with mental health and a lack of motivation to do schoolwork. And with the ever-present news cycle and uncertainty about how long students will be away from the campus, their nerves have intensified.

Zelda Zhao said she was “enthusiastic” at the beginning of the transition to remote learning. She thought recorded lectures would give her more time to absorb the material, but she has since found that maintaining her own schedule is difficult.

Because she is away from most of her friends and family — Zhao is still living on the campus with her roommates — she has turned to social media to stay connected.

“My social media kind of gets inundated with a lot of news about coronavirus, about how people are handling it and so forth. It’s kind of depressing,” she said. “So it’s hard to work up motivation and to just stop worrying about what is happening.”

[Read more: UMD international students feel stranded as COVID-19 devastates their home countries]

Zhao has had anxiety and depression in the past, and she said it got “really out of hand” last semester. This semester, she’d hoped to “get everything together” and move forward with her college career — and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

Zhao’s well-being hasn’t fallen as far as it did last semester — but as social distancing and self-quarantining continue, she said she’s nervous.

“The longer this semester continues on, the more I feel like I could slip back into last semester,” the sophomore fire protection engineering major said. “I’m definitely worried about that.”

Van den Berghe has noticed something similar. He said that since classes transitioned online, he has experienced a “slowly-deteriorating mental state.” 

Van den Berghe has faced his own mental health issues in the past — he has ADHD and has had anxiety and depression. But, having experienced these issues before, he said he is not alarmed about his current mental state.

“I would be more surprised if this didn’t happen,” he said. “If life goes back to normal and stuff is still like this mentally, then I’ll be concerned. But for right now, I’m just getting through it.”

For students who have struggled with their mental health in the past month, these issues have had varying effects on their grades. Zhao, for instance, has forgotten to complete certain assignments — something she attributes to not being able to keep track of dates. However, the lack of motivation has not seriously affected her overall grades, she said.

[Read more: College Park residents face anxiety, financial uncertainty as COVID-19 spreads]

But Van den Berghe said his grades have declined during the pandemic. Prior to the outbreak, he received mostly straight “As” and stayed on top of his work, he said. Now, he is just trying to pass his classes, and he will be using the pass/fail option that this university is offering.

Madi Barnett is also planning to use the pass/fail option. Ever since the switch to online learning, the senior communication major has had more trouble than usual completing assignments and attending lectures.

Barnett attributed this to a variety of reasons, among them her unfamiliarity with online classes and her own mental health — she has had anxiety and depression since she was 11 years old. Some days, she has difficulty getting out of bed.

“I’ve definitely noticed those issues getting worse during this whole quarantine,” she said. “The last month for me has just been very bizarre … I’ve just kind of found myself caring less and less about schoolwork.”

For Michelle O’Connell, part of her decreased motivation comes from the fact that she’s at home — a place she doesn’t usually associate with doing work.

“My mind is just in summer mode right now,” the sophomore English and secondary education major said. “It’s a lot easier to get distracted when it’s on your laptop and not in person.”

But despite the changing circumstances, Zhao said she is trying to keep her mind at ease in any way possible. She often washes dishes or vacuums — mindless tasks, she said — which help keep her distracted from the world around her. 

“That stuff makes me feel more settled,” Zhao said. “A little more organized, a little more ready to deal with things.”

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