In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of U.S. colleges have closed their campuses and switched to online classes. Around 20 million college students are watching lectures at home and taking tests online. And while this decision has been jarring for many students, it’s sure to greatly benefit the environment.

Keeping a college campus open expends large amounts of resources in gas, electricity, paper, and water. Over 300 colleges have turned off their lights, air conditioning, projectors, and kitchens. Commuter students are staying home instead of driving to school and campus buses have stopped or reduced service.

No paper is needed for exams or assignments. Many colleges are offering eBooks as an alternative to costly textbooks. It is estimated that 28,000 trees are saved per million books that aren’t printed.

Additionally, colleges produce great quantities of trash: coffee cups, food waste, candy wrappers. Eating at home reduces the amount of food we waste and trash we produce. The large trash cans all over campus that fill up every day are now empty.

These changes are sure to lead to large-scale reductions of CO2 emissions. In a study by David E. Campbell at Humboldt State and J. Elliott Campbell at UC Merced it was found that moving one lower-division class of 100 students online reduced CO2 emissions by 5 to 10 tons per semester, with each student saving 100 to 340 pounds.

Students struggle with changes

While the environmental impact of online learning is positive, the mental impact on students is much more complicated. At first, many students were content with and even excited about online classes. For many students on the quarter system, it meant canceled finals, and for semester students, an extended spring break.

Despite these apparent advantages, distance learning has become tiring and demoralizing for many students. College is hard on its own, and the stress of the pandemic doesn’t make it easier. Attending classes online can be isolating.

“It’s hard to stay motivated when I worried about my family getting sick and I’m missing my friends,” says UC Davis senior Morgan Lavenstein.

It takes a lot of mental effort to stay engaged and focused. And many students who have returned home face distractions they wouldn’t while in their college towns. Libraries and coffee shops are closed so students have nowhere to study but their home.

UC Davis students Morgan Lavenstein (left) and Roya Samani (right) study at home during Covid-19 shelter-in-place order.
Photo courtesy Mary Westover.

And while online classes might seem more manageable, they are often just as draining. Classes often involve starring at a computer screen for hours on end which leads to screen exhaustion.

“I’ll be watching lecture videos for 3 to 4 hours and then have to go take a nap even if I just sat the whole time,” says UC Davis Senior Roya Samani. Eyes have a harder time focusing on a screen because of the light distribution. Your eyes jump around while trying to focus, which tires them out and affects the upper body as well. You also blink less, and, by sitting still for so long, your body naturally wants to go to sleep. This, along with the anxieties students already face and the lack of stimulation from extracurricular activities, can leave students unmotivated and burnt out.

Peter Yellowless, professor and chief wellness officer at UC Davis Health, has offered some advice to struggling students. He suggests staying connected to loved ones online or over the phone, keeping a regular sleep schedule, taking breaks to exercise, and taking advantage of UC Davis’s resources. The most important thing is that students take care of themselves and take advantage of available mental health services.

Mary Westover is a senior Pharmaceutical Chemistry major and Professional Writing minor at UC Davis. She is from Sacramento and is an avid hulahooper. Mary is serving as an intern for Cool Davis this Spring and Summer quarters.

Resources for UC Davis students

Student Health and Counseling Services remain open for students!

UC Davis Coronavirus FAQs for Students

UC Davis Student Health

Medical visits: Schedule a telephone visit through the Health-e-Messaging portal to initiate care. Speak with a Student Health Center nurse during normal business hours or the after-hours nurse advice service by calling 530-752-2349.

Mental health visits: Counseling Services are available by phone or via secure video conferencing. Schedule an appointment through the Health-e-Messaging portal or by calling 530-752-0871. All Mental Health Crisis Consultation Services are offered via phone consultation or secure video conferencing. Call 530-752-0871 to access these services.

Additional mental health resources

COVID-19 Mental Health Resource Flyer (pdf download)

LiveHealth Online: Have secure, online video visits with licensed mental health professionals and primary care providers; no referral is needed.

Therapy Assistance Online: Use interactive tools and self-care exercises for mental health concerns.


UC Davis students Morgan Lavenstein (left) and Roya Samani (right). Not all study is online during Covid-19 shelter-in-place order. Photo courtesy Mary Westover.