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'Flipped upside down': Students reflect on the start of the pandemic

UNC Alumni Hall on March 5, 2021. Students recount their initial reactions to the country shutting down due to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

It’s been a year since COVID-19 first arrived in North Carolina – shutting down everything from local businesses to college campuses.

Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, UNC students share their reflections on the 2020 shutdown, one year later.

Like many UNC students, junior Ally Pagans was on spring break when she first heard about campus closures. 

Pagans and her mom took a spring break trip to see the Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. After a morning hike and lobster roll lunch, they decided to take a break at a quaint coffee shop. 

As Pagans sat eating chocolate truffles and blueberry lemon cake, she said her phone pinged with a new email notification. 

This email was from the University, informing students that spring break was extended an additional week to prepare for the implementation of remote instruction.

At first, Pagans said she found the news exciting – spring break would last until March 22, and she wasn’t very concerned with taking courses remotely. 

“I low-key was kind of excited,” Pagans said. “It would be nice to just not have to go anywhere and do class in your bed. I was definitely excited for that extra week, for sure.”

However, it didn’t take long for reality to set in. A few days after getting back from her trip, various businesses began to shut down around her.

“When everything shut down, it was an overwhelming experience,” Pagans said. “It was just a very stressful time, and that overtook the freedom of not having to be anywhere.”

Chloe Riley, a sophomore, was also pleased to have additional time for spring break. Riley said she didn’t see the shutdown lasting for long, and she was excited about the opportunity to spend more time with her family. It wasn’t until spring break was over that Riley realized the gravity of the situation.

“At first, it was just exciting – who doesn’t want an extra spring break?” Riley said. “Once the second break had passed, you realized that your whole world was flipped upside down.”

Looking back to her first impression of the coronavirus, Riley said she didn’t expect the pandemic to still be around today.

“I didn’t even realize how big of a scale it was when it first happened,” Riley said. “When you think of polio and other outbreaks, you’re like 'That was so long ago.' I thought it would last a few months, nowhere near a year.”

First-year Eiona Engwall said she hadn’t even started her journey at UNC when the shutdown first commenced. As a senior in high school, her biggest concern had been which college she was going to attend in the fall.

As COVID-19 made its way to North Carolina, Engwall quickly became worried about her safety. While UNC students were receiving news of the campus shutting down, Engwall was still going to school in-person. Engwall said being in-person made her panicked, hoping that she wouldn’t catch coronavirus.

“My last day of school was a senior assembly for something graduation-related,” Engwall said. “It was the middle of cold season. I was just looking around and seeing everybody sniffling and coughing. My paranoia was heightened – I was like, 'I will get sick if I stay here.'”

Although Engwall was hoping for her school to shut down, she never imagined the pandemic lasting past the summer, let alone an entire year.

“It didn’t seem like a long-term thing at the time,” Engwall said. “I did not think my entire freshman year would be online. I thought at least by August we would be somewhat normal.”

North Carolina is now offering vaccines to Group 3 frontline workers. Group 4 will be eligible for vaccination starting March 24.

There is no certainty as to when the United States will return back to some type of normal, post-COVID-19 lifestyle. However, when it does, Pagans said she is looking forward to touring the National Parks once again with her mom.

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“The reason why my mom and I went to Bar Harbor was to see the Acadia National Park,” Pagans said. “I saw myself just continuing traveling to different places to see National Parks. I’m very, very excited to do that again.”