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Move-In Day: Cornavirus Reshapes The College Experience


The University of North Carolina announced yesterday that it was backing away from its plans to hold classes in person just one week into the fall semester. This has been the concern all summer long, that colleges would welcome students to campus and then they'd have to shut down right away. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been covering this. She is in Georgia this week, where students at that state's flagship university are moving onto campus. Hi, Elissa.


GREENE: Before we get to Georgia, where you are, let's start with UNC Chapel Hill. Tell us what happened there.

NADWORNY: So after just a week of classes, UNC Chapel Hill, one of the larger campuses trying to bring folks back for in-person classes, reversed the decision. So they're now pivoting to all-remote instruction following several coronavirus clusters on campus.

GREENE: Clusters - so what exactly are we talking about? How many students are impacted here?

NADWORNY: Well, according to the university, just last week, 130 students and five employees tested positive. The clusters are in housing both on and off campus. The school says it's going to work to reduce on-campus housing. It's going to let students out of those contracts without penalty. I've been keeping in touch with a junior at UNC, Maydha Devarajan. She's just moved into her off-campus apartment over the weekend. Here's what she had to say.

MAYDHA DEVARAJAN: People saw this coming. This was not, by any means, a surprise for a lot of faculty members, campus workers, students. I was not even here for 24 hours, and then classes ended up being shifted.

NADWORNY: All over the country, colleges are watching what's happening at UNC as they themselves are starting to bring students back.

GREENE: Wow. People saw this coming, she said. I mean, that's amazing. This has to be on the minds of universities that are going through the reopening process, and one of them is the University of Georgia, where you are. What's it feel like there?

NADWORNY: Well, we got to campus on move-in weekend, which usually is a pretty rowdy weekend. But here, it's relatively quiet. You know, there's just groups of students hanging out on campus. The campus does require masks pretty much all the time when you're not eating or in your dorm, and students have been complying. We saw students outside a fraternity house playing basketball. All but one were wearing masks.

GREENE: Wow. Well, what is - I mean, how do you even handle move in in a state like Georgia, which has had, I think, the highest number of positive cases per population in the country, right?

NADWORNY: That's right. There are special COVID procedures here to slim down spaces, to keep them less crowded. You know, you had to sign up for slots to move in. You're only allowed to bring two people into the dorm with you, and we saw tons of cleaning supplies.

EBONY COLEMAN: We provided her with hand sanitizers, masks, disinfectants for her room.

NADWORNY: That's mom Ebony Coleman, whose daughter Kyndal is starting her freshman year. She packed a quarantine bag with her to move in.

COLEMAN: Just like a first-aid kit, if you will. She's got a duffel bag that we put together with extra chargers, a few shelvable rations, if you will, chicken broth, whatever we could put in there just to make sure that she had what she needed in quarantine.

NADWORNY: So that's just in case she gets sick. You know, there's a little anxiety, of course. This is this a different kind of move in. But it's also really exciting, and the Coleman family is really proud.

COLEMAN: UGA has been her dream school for years, since she was a little, little girl. I'm feeling emotional - haven't cried yet, but I probably will (laughter).

GREENE: Oh, I'm getting chills listening to such a proud mom. I mean, how are students feeling? I mean, can they focus on the beginning of this college experience with everything going on and quarantine bags?

NADWORNY: So for the most part, they're really happy to be on campus. We talked to a group of students who were eating dinner outside by the football stadium.

JANNAH MOHAMMAD: It's really good that we were able to get on campus so they can see what tactics are working, what's not, even though we have to be, like, the sacrificial lambs.

ANNETTE CAMARGO-VERA: And it kind of makes me nervous because, like, I probably already walked past somebody who has it and doesn't even know it.

NADWORNY: That was Jannah Mohammad and Annette Camargo-Vera, first-year students. They had masks. The college actually sent every student two washable masks and a thermometer in the mail before they came to campus. Right now, they're more concerned with making friends and actually recognizing people on campus in those masks than getting coronavirus themselves.

GREENE: Well, I mean, Elissa, what we saw at UNC - they decided there were enough clusters, enough concern that they had to go online. I mean, does Georgia have a threshold for when they would need to shut down and when things would get bad enough?

NADWORNY: So I put that question to Dr. Shelley Nuss, who's been helping implement reopening plans here.

SHELLEY NUSS: That's the million-dollar question, Elissa. I mean, of course it's been discussed, but it's very complicated. Are we out of our own isolation beds? You know, how many pockets are in dorms versus not? I mean, there's probably 20 or 30 different things.

NADWORNY: So not a concrete answer. You know, UGA's doing randomized testing every day on campus. Nuss says they're planning on reporting the number of positive cases on a weekly basis. But the big question here is, what do students do off campus? You know, we did go out last night, and the bar strip in downtown Athens was full of students, many without masks. On the street, there were reunions, hugs, chatting, smoking. One thing to note - you know, it's warm out here, so there is a lot of socializing that's happening outside.

GREENE: All right. Elissa, I know you're going to be traveling over the next several months on the road, exploring what college looks like in a pandemic. If you are a college student or professor and you want to share your experience, you can find Elissa on Twitter @ElissaNadworny. Elissa, thank you so much.

NADWORNY: Thanks, David.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: NPR reported that the University of Georgia in Athens was conducting randomized COVID-19 testing every day on campus. The university later clarified that, at the time this story was reported, this plan had not yet been implemented.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 19, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
NPR reported that the University of Georgia in Athens was conducting randomized COVID-19 testing every day on campus. The university later clarified that, at the time this story was reported, this plan had not yet been implemented.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.