On the day Nautica Nolden moved into her New York University dorm, the place she’d be quarantining for two weeks, she was supposed to get three meals from the school.
“For the first day, I didn’t get any meals, and I was really confused on why. … When I told them that I wasn’t getting everything, they realized they might be giving it to the wrong room,” said Nolden, 18, a freshman majoring in psychology.
That evening, Nolden finally received her meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — all at once. She expected that things would improve the following day, only to get all three meals, once again, in the evening.
So she made a TikTok video about the experience.
“Everyone else started creating TikToks about it, and I was like: ‘Oh, this isn’t just me. Apparently, they’re having a little bit of a rough start with this,'” she said.
As students moved into their dorms at NYU, viral videos of the underwhelming (and in some cases moldy) meals took over TikTok. On social media, users across the country said their For You pages, TikTok’s infinite scrolling homepage, had been taken over by students documenting the paltry, stomach-churning meals.
NYU has acknowledged the students’ complaints and adjusted the meals, and, in an email Tuesday that several students shared with NBC News, it said it would give students who were quarantining gift cards for Grubhub for what amounted to $30 per day for the duration of the quarantine.
Between the mandatory quarantines for out-of-state students living in the dormitories and the substandard meal offerings, the school year has gotten off to a rocky start — but the beginning-of-the-year difficulties could be a sign of the new normal for colleges and universities in the United States as they try to reopen during the pandemic.
A half-dozen students in quarantine at NYU said the food situation was equal parts frustrating and comical.
“It’s definitely really weird to come to school but not be able to see anyone or meet anyone at first. We moved in, and I didn’t even see anybody through the move-in process. Now, I’m stuck in my dorm room, and we can’t see anybody. We can’t leave our rooms,” said Madison Veldman, 18, a freshman studying film and television.
Colleges and universities have been vexed by how they can keep students safe while reopening as COVID-19 cases on campuses have risen sharply. Institutions like the University of Notre Dame, the University of Connecticut and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have all had recent outbreaks. To prevent further outbreaks, many of the approximately 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. are limiting dorm and classroom capacities, testing students for the virus, insisting on mask-wearing and limiting or canceling social activities.
More than 2,600 students at NYU are in quarantine in residence halls, the school said in a statement. Students said the school had them quarantined in accordance with New York state’s travel advisory.
NYU’s strict quarantining and testing procedures appear to be in line with the nationwide efforts of schools to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks — and for students, that means adjusting expectations for what the college experience will be like.
Like Veldman, many students who spoke to NBC News are freshmen who said they’ve had to adjust their college dreams to accommodate the reality of the pandemic.
“It’s very weird, because, going into it, like, I had a whole idea of how college is going to be, but because of COVID, it’s, like, not at all what I would’ve expected or hoped for. Being isolated for the last five days, I think it’s been — you start to go crazy,” Veldman said.
Students said they were required to get tested for COVID-19 before moving into the dorms, where they’re required to quarantine alone for two weeks. Most students are quarantining alone, although some are staying in suites, which have shared common areas and bathrooms. Students said that during the quarantine, they’ll be required to get tested after the first week and then again sporadically throughout the school year.
NYU didn’t respond to a request for comment about the quarantine, but it said in a statement last week that it knew about the students’ complaints about the food.
“We are aware of the students’ complaints, which are valid. This is a never-before-tried operation for us and our food vendor, Chartwells,” the statement reads, adding that “it is vital to get it right, and we are disappointed in Chartwells’s management of the quarantine meals process. We and Chartwells are correcting the situation promptly.”
Chartwells didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the first few weeks, when students would normally be socializing with one another, attending parties and exploring the city and the campus, they’ve been alone in dorm rooms, getting to know one another through GroupMe group texts — if they’ve been able to find their dorms’ group chats — and waiting to discover what their new normal school year will look like.
Some students said they’re trying to remain optimistic. Annabelle Skala, 18, a freshman studying vocal performance with a concentration in musical theater, said she’s adjusted from disappointment over what the school year will be lacking and instead has found humor in the fact that she’ll be taking classes like ballet virtually.
“NYU was my dream school. I wanted to go there since I was 12, so I had this magical idea of what was going to happen when I moved in and when I started my classes. … I think I’ve kind of adapted into thinking of my new normal. Whereas I used to be sad, like, mourning the college experience I’m not getting, I’m excited for what I am” getting, Skala said.
Skala has also been prolific about documenting the meal deliveries in TikTok posts, at least one of which has been viewed more than a million times.
“Every time a meal arrives, I’m like, ‘OK, now it’s time for my little unboxing,'” she said. “Now I feel like a YouTuber, almost, just always doing these unboxing of meals. My whole day is up on TikTok now, so it’s kind of funny.”
The attention on TikTok has helped make Skala and other students in quarantine feel less alone, and humor has helped them cope as they isolate.
“It’s been really helpful just to have other people laugh at it and everyone kind of come together in a silly way. It gave me something to look forward to and to do with all my downtime,” said Danielle Gould, 19, a sophomore majoring in film and television.
For some sophomores, whose in-person semesters were cut short when New York City’s coronavirus cases began to spike earlier this year, returning to campus at all felt like a huge step forward.
Mary Kate Abner, 19, a sophomore majoring in educational theater, said returning to NYU and seeing a white tent on campus where coronavirus testing is conducted felt dystopian. She said it’s hard for her to complain when people in her own life have been affected by COVID-19, but she said losing a part of her freshman year was still difficult in its own way.
“It was really hard. It still is really hard. This seems so foolish to be saying, because I know that there are people — my friends who had parents die or siblings that got really sick or even my friends — who have gotten really sick from this pandemic, and it’s horrible,” she said. “So I feel ridiculous to be complaining about how I lost a little bit of my freshman year, but it absolutely was very, very difficult.”
Abner described herself as an extreme optimist and said that despite the bizarre food and the two-week quarantine, she’s just happy to be able to attend college when so much is uncertain.
Still, she added, when the air should be humming with the potential of a new school year, it’s hard to ignore the somewhat melancholy atmosphere among her peers.
“Coming back this semester feels weird, because, like I said, that one time I was outside for, like, an hour waiting in line to be tested, it felt normal, but it almost felt like there was this cloud of sadness hanging over the entire campus, because it’s not what it’s supposed to be,” Abner said. “It felt weird, for sure, but I have been longing for this moment to just come back to school.”