#collegesafety | College students, families experience pared-down move-in experience

Pushing a cart full of decorations and clothes past the “Masks Required” signs, Prairie View A&M University freshman Tamayah Smith had little time to take in the campus once she arrived Monday morning.

The new student would spend the rest of her semester in her dorm, and the pressure was already on.

With the campus’ new social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith’s parents — the only two people allowed to move her in — had to be out of her dorm room by noon. Smith had just 45 minutes before she had to return the cart that helped her haul her belongings, and at least one more load of things awaited her in the parking lot.

Nerves were high as the 18-year-old and her parents raced the clock, pushing large containers of clothing up two flights of stairs.

“It’s stressful,” Smith said, as she rushed to her room.

The college move-in is typically a celebratory, chaotic one-day event and rite of passage for students and their families. This year, because of the coronavirus, it has been expanded over several days at Houston-area colleges, with scaled-back welcomes, time limits and restrictions on how many people are allowed within dorm rooms. Facial coverings and social distancing, as advised by health officials, are required, and housing capacities for some schools have been reduced by half.

Elsewhere on the Prairie View campus, things were calmer than at Smith’s dormitory.

Mekhi Bell, 20-year-old senior, said the move-in experience was drastically different than previous years, but he liked it. There was less traffic, and “it’s a lot less people moving in, but it’s easier,” said Bell, who on Monday was moving in his girlfriend, Erin Haven, also a senior.

“I’m excited. I’m happy to actually be here, even if there is social distancing,” said Bell, who will take most of his classes online.

At the University of Houston, a mix of online and in-person classes begin Monday. They will move in over five days through Friday into their choice of a single or double room in the college’s apartment and suite-style options, said Don Yackley, executive director of student housing and residential life.

At Prairie View A&M, a college that has seen demands for on-campus housing exceed its supply, nearly 5,000 students are scheduled to move in on campus, and some are still on the waiting list, said Marquis Gatewood, executive director of housing & residence life. Prairie View’s classes, also offered in-person and online, begin Monday.

The move-in experience is “a joyful festive thing. You see parents dropping off their kids and boo-hooing … but people had to work through that process more quickly than they had to do in the past,” said Mark Ditman, Rice University’s associate vice president for housing and dining.

At Rice, where classes also begin Monday 1,600 students slated to live on campus are required to be rapid-tested for COVID-19. Afterward, they will be the only people allowed to move into their rooms — a stark contrast from previous years, when parents and family members were encouraged to accompany freshmen.

The on-campus housing capacity at Rice, typically about 2,800, has been reduced by about 40 percent, and move-in dates were extended to two days, Ditman said.

Food and fun

The campus dining experience is also expected to see big changes at Rice. The college’s dining director and executive chef are educating staff on food handling and proper PPE — the type typically seen in hospitals.

The days of buffet-style food service are over for now, Ditman said, and might never return. Instead, food will be served behind shields, and the university has already explored offering pre-sealed meals, much like food on airplanes.

“We’ll keep tweaking the models and see what’s successful and needs to be more restrictive,” Ditman said.

The University of St. Thomas held a spirited welcome last year with free food and student cheerleaders on its Montrose campus. But Tuesday saw a no-frills move in ahead of the start of online classes on Monday. St. Thomas will be hold all courses online until Sept. 21. As music played in the background, staff members checked students’ temperatures and required them to answer questionnaires about any COVID-19 symptoms — the campus’ new protocol for entry.

To maintain social distancing and safety, just two students moved into St. Thomas’ Guinan Hall building every 15 minutes, or eight students every hour. Furniture had also been marked or moved out of common areas to encourage social distancing. Just about 200 students will live on campus, a decrease from last year’s 425.

“It’s a pared-down vibe because we want students to know it is important to follow the guidelines, and that the residence experience is different,” said Ana Alicia Lopez, St. Thomas’ director of residence life.

Isabella Rivera, a student athlete and freshman at St. Thomas who will be living with a teammate, said she appreciated the university’s safe approach for its residence hall.

“I was obviously feeling a bit wary because of everything going on right now, but as soon as I got in here, there were very strict protocols that made me and my family feel more comfortable,” Rivera said. “I’m just really glad that they opened up the halls for us, so I can get a really good college experience, even though it’s withholding on a few things and traditions.”

Minh Truong, a junior psychology major on the pre-med track who will be living alone at St. Thomas, also said he felt more at ease with the precautions the college was taking.

Getting used to how people communicate and socialize on college campuses will look different and be tough, Truong said.

He said he appreciates the college’s effort to make things safe and enjoyable for students on campus. “They’re trying their best to make it feel like it’s normal,” he said.

At UH’s dorm Cougar Village II, freshman Caleb Shepard of Jefferson was welcomed with a complimentary UH-themed mask, a T-shirt and hand sanitizer to commemorate his move-in. But there was no line up of handshakes or congratulations. And UH President Renu Khator didn’t give her special, in-person hello to arriving students.

Shepard, accompanied by a crew of family outside — inside, only his father and stepmother were allowed to help unpack his first load of things — said he was still happy about moving in.

“I’m glad to have a chance to go on campus. It’s kind of sad because you won’t be able to get the very first freshman experience on campus,” said the teen who will take most of his classes online. “But overall, I’m excited.”

Joshua Wade, a sophomore biology major, said campus felt a little weird on move-in day, but the process was a lot easier than what he experienced last year.

“It’s a little painful,” said Wade.


brittany.britto@chron.com


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