The excitement in the air at the University of Georgia is palpable, with move-in days for the fall semester finally here. There are packed cars, overstuffed suitcases, a white shag rug, an old grey futon and a potted succulent named Susie.
But nestled between the familiar college accessories were stark reminders of the coronavirus pandemic: Boxes of cleaning supplies. Masks. Hand sanitizer.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of college students are making their way to campus to begin the fall semester. At the University of Georgia in Athens about 8,000 students are moving into the dorms this week, beginning an unusual on-campus experience, with a global pandemic as the backdrop.
The state of Georgia has one of the highest rates of coronavirus per capita in the U.S. and unlike other colleges that have transitioned to virtual learning, this flagship university is determined to host students on campus and have many of its classes in person. Nationwide, about 20% of four-year schools are offering classes either partially or fully in person, with another 15% doing a hybrid approach, according to data from the College Crisis Initiative. Those numbers, gathered Wednesday, are continuing to change, as many institutions reverse course.
"I'm just glad to be here," one UGA student said to a new friend on her way up to their dorms.
"We've been waiting all summer," said a mom holding a body pillow in the parking lot.
"It's going to be an interesting year," said another student as he passed the university's mass COVID-19 testing site.
All these interactions were a bit muffled because of the school's mandatory mask policy: Unless you're eating or in your dorm, you must wear one. Walking around campus, it's rare to see someone without one — even if at times it's simply hanging from one ear or around the chin. Off campus, late at night it's a different story: In downtown Athens, swarms of students lingered outside bars, most not wearing masks. And this is where the tension lies: All of the campus precautions depend on student behavior.
A new beginning
Because of COVID-19, move-in runs a bit differently. Students had to sign up for time slots — an attempt at social distancing — and when they check in, they get wristbands for just two helpers to go up with them to the dorms.
Kelsey Lawrence, an incoming freshman from Atlanta, makes her way up the hill to Russell Hall, a mostly freshman dorm that can house about 1,000 students. She's pushing a luggage cart piled high with clothes and shoes. "I probably won't have enough space for all of it," she says, "but I'm going to try."
She elects to have her father and sister go inside with her, which leaves her mother, Vanessa Lawrence, outside. Mom is feeling good about the reopening; she packed up medicine and snacks, in case Kelsey gets sick. Having her daughter away at college gives Vanessa comfort, she says. Kelsey will get better access to testing and health care on campus than back home, plus there's less risk for the rest of the family if she decides to be social and gets exposed.
And Vanessa is pretty sure many of the college students streaming by her aren't going to follow the social distancing rules. "Am I going to be up all night tonight? Yeah I'm going to be honest about that," she says. But then again, she thinks she probably won't sleep well again until Kelsey graduates.
Down in the parking lot across from Russell, Ebony Coleman is waiting with her extended family — grandmothers, twin brothers, parents – all here to move Ebony's daughter Kyndal, a freshman, into her dorm. "Everybody helped her get to this day," says Coleman.
The University of Georgia has always been Kyndal's dream since she was little, Ebony tells us. "I'm feeling emotional," she says, "I haven't cried yet, but I probably will."
Is Ebony afraid of moving her daughter in during a pandemic? Sure, she's nervous. She even packed Kyndal a quarantine go-bag. "Like a first-aid kit," with non-perishable food items like chicken broth. She read about the idea on a mom Facebook group. But despite the fears, today is a big moment for the family: Her baby girl is going to college.
Classes start Thursday
Across campus, associate professor Jon Swindler walks through the art building — the hallways and rooms here would normally be bustling this time of year, but today they're are empty. He has been prepping the studios for the first day of in-person in-person classes on Thursday. Faculty and staff have been working for months to come up with creative solutions for how teaching studio art with masks and social distancing.
"We looked at a lot of different options," Swindler says, "You know, we even were looking into the possibility of holding class in a parking garage." They decided against that idea, but they have set up a painting class with easels outside, near a green area behind the building. Inside, Swindler opens a drawing studio that usually fits 18 students; today it's been set up with just six stations.
Faculty recorded demonstrations on video this summer to cut down on in-person demos when students return to campus.
Even with all this prep, Swindler is apprehensive about the fall semester: "There's just so much unknown still."
He stresses the value of learning in-person when it comes to art. "That moment when a student thinks that they've made a mistake or they think that something went wrong. And you're like, 'Hey, stop, let's look at this,' " he says. Those moments are where the real learning happens — "really important moments in the studio that make being in-person in art school really important."
Pushback to in-person
A major critique has been how the university plans to use coronavirus testing. There is currently a mass testing site on a field on campus that anticipates running about 300 tests a day, all voluntary.
According to Dr. Shelley Nuss, who is helping to implement campus reopening, there is a plan to make the operation more randomized to better screen the campus for COVID-19, but that plan is still in the works. "Both self-selected and randomly selected individuals will have access to free testing," according to a spokesperson from the university. "Testing will always be voluntary."
Financial pressures are also at play in the University of Georgia, where room and board bring in necessary revenue.
"If we were to move fully online, there is no question that there would have to be layoffs," Jere Morehead, the university's president is quoted as saying in the student paper, The Red & Black.
UGA is not the first large public university that's been down this road. On Monday, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed its plan to hold in-person classes after multiple coronavirus clusters surfaced on campus. Students at UNC are beginning the move-out process, just two weeks after they moved in.
And the University of Notre Dame also halted in-person classes after a steady rise of positive cases, many linked to off-campus gatherings where students weren't wearing masks or social distancing.
The University of Georgia hasn't released a threshold for when it would shut down and transition online.
"Of course it's been discussed," Dr. Nuss told NPR, "but it's very complicated." Some questions that might factor into the decision: "Are we out of our own isolation beds? How many pockets are in dorms, versus not? There's probably 20 or 30 different things."
The wild card
All of the efforts on campus may be for naught, though, when night falls and students head off campus to party.
On Monday night at around 11 p.m., the bar strip in downtown Athens was overflowing with students, most not wearing masks. In an effort to control the number of people packed inside, bars were enforcing capacity limits. That meant the lines outside were long and rowdy, with students reuniting after months away. There were hugs and students talking together closely, certainly not social distancing.
Ultimately, it seems the success of the college's reopening plan will be decided on a packed sidewalk, a dark bar or an off-campus party.
Vanessa Lawrence, who dropped her daughter Kelsey off at Russell Hall, is well aware of how things might play out. When she and her husband left, she told her daughter to be prepared for campus to shut down. "Don't worry," she said, "if it happens, we'll be here to pick you up."
Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.