The tolling of college bells sounds lonely now that a pandemic has nearly emptied the campus at Boston College. First-generation student Darnell Fils is one of a few hundred students who have been allowed to stay on.

College students across the country got the same assignment: go home and continue online. But some campuses made exceptions for students who couldn’t return home or faced hardship.

“Not everyone has like a perfect household situation where they can just be in their own space and do what they have to do,” said Fils.

Back home in Florida, space was tight in the family’s two room apartment and finding a quiet place to focus would have been a challenge.

Rossanna Contreras-Godfrey, director of “Learning To Learn” at Boston College, says the pandemic has ratcheted up the difficulties first-generation students face.

In addition to housing dilemmas, students may be returning to homes where there are mental health issues, or where they are unsafe due to abuse. “So all of those factors play into why a student couldn’t go home because they just don’t have a safe environment where they can thrive and have the support needed,” Contreras-Godfrey said.

“Learning to Learn” is a federally funded center to help guide first-generation as well as low-income college students. Programs like the one at Boston College, were born from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and exist at colleges and universities across the country. An estimated one-third of all college students are first-generation — a term broadly defined as not having a parent or guardian who completed a four-year degree.

Going home can also mean losing the security of a meal plan, and money from work on campus. And some students have grown to rely on college as home.

Boston College senior Chantal Sanchez is a theology major hoping to enter divinity school in the fall. She’s also a first-generation student staying on campus during the pandemic.

“My Mom stopped having contact with me after freshman year, so that basically left me homeless,” Sanchez said.

As she described it, she bounced around to different relatives but never really felt she had a home, so she views college as her “permanent residence.”

Without the guidance of college-experienced parents or relatives, Sanchez had to build a network of support of teachers, mentors and other students. The pandemic turmoil, she said, wiped out much of the grounding she had.

“The first-gen college experience is a really rocky road,” Sanchez said, but the pandemic “really took something that was already fairly uncertain and kind of rocky and ramped it up completely.”

“For many first-generation students, just getting to college in the first place was a challenge. And then the pandemic has knocked everyone back,” said Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the “Center for First-Generation Student Success” at NASPA.

Once these students leave campus, they’re likely to lack a key tool for online classes: access to broadband internet. It’s a problem hitting not only first-gen students but low income students across the U.S. Many students are now driving in search of hot spots where they can take classes and work in their car. The rush to move classes online has sent schools scrambling to set up parking lot wifi where students have can participate in coursework while observing social distancing by remaining in their cars. Remote learning also requires blocks of time without distraction, so working in a car may be the only option for a quiet focused place to work.

“Some first-gen students, they report family not really understanding what it means to go to school and when you’re sitting at your desk at your computer, you’re actually doing your job of schoolwork, and they feel a need to do it elsewhere outside of the home,” said Whitley.

And there’s worry about another potential consequence of this pandemic on first-generation students: they may not return to college. First generation students are already less likely to finish their four-year degree than other peers and the crisis may lower their odds further.

“They need to look for part- or full-time employment, they may be needing to do that because a parent or family member lost a job, they may need to be taking care of siblings who are out of school,” Whitley said. “So there’s a worry that some students may choose to just remain employed, may feel obligated to remain in their home communities and choose to not return in the fall.”

While many first-gen families are supportive, Whitley said, some don’t understand the value of college and may encourage students to stay at home “to remain loyal to the family.”

To take into account the upheaval all students are facing, many colleges have moved to pass-fail grading. But there’s confusion and debate among first-gen students about whether it will help or hurt their success.

“I think the pass-fail option for students doesn’t come lightly for them. And it’s not something all of them will take up,” Contreras-Godfrey said. But given the lost list of challenges she said, “we need to be able to have some sort of flexibility.”

Whatever the obstacles, Darnell Fils is staying upbeat and trying to keep motivation going among his friends who are also first-gen students.

“We’re all going thru it, we’re all feeling it. So just sticking together in that sense, I feel that’s what I’m trying to do with my fellow peers and friends.”