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What It's Like To Move Into Dorms Amid The Pandemic


All over the country, college students are moving back into dorms this week. There are strict new rules, a lot of confusion and, of course, many anxious parents. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is on a college road trip to see how it's all going. And on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, she saw firsthand how the success of this school year may be decided in these first few hours.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Thousands of students are moving into the dorms this week in Athens, Ga., about an hour outside of Atlanta. There are familiar scenes - a father and son unloading a futon from the back of their pickup truck...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Do you want to flip it over?

NADWORNY: ...Students with all sorts of stuff - mirrors, rugs, toaster ovens.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I've got my suitcase and stuff in the back and my book bag with all my school supplies in it. And I have my succulent. And her name is Susie (ph) (laughter).

NADWORNY: There were a lot of proud parents...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the new student here, the valedictorian from Miller Grove High.

NADWORNY: ...And some dad jokes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The U-Haul gets here in a half-hour.

NADWORNY: But this year, it is different. Georgia has the highest number of positive cases of coronavirus per capita in the U.S., so there are rules. Only two people can come up to your dorm with you. And students had to sign up for a time slot.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: You got an hour to pack as much stuff in as you can.

NADWORNY: Everyone has to wear masks.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah, put the mask on now.

NADWORNY: And folks packed lots and lots of cleaning supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is, like, all the cleaning stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We want the cleaning stuff first, bro.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: It's mostly, like, wipes and stuff to wipe everything down at the end of the day and hopefully not get COVID.

NADWORNY: On the way into Russell Hall, a mostly freshmen dorm that houses about 900 students, we met Kelsey Lawrence, a freshman.

KELSEY LAWRENCE: I brought all my clothes and my shoes. I probably won't have enough space for all of it, but I'm going to try.

NADWORNY: She's not exaggerating about those shoes. She has an entire box devoted to her many pairs of Crocs.

LAWRENCE: My favorite had to be the tie-dye.

NADWORNY: Since Kelsey was only allowed two helpers, her dad and sister head up to her room, leaving mom Vanessa outside.

VANESSA: She is prepared with everything that you would need if she did get sick. So I sent all the medicines and all the everything.

NADWORNY: Vanessa's voice is a bit muffled because she's wearing a mask.

VANESSA: They're not going to follow the rules. I mean, you'll have some that will, some that won't.

NADWORNY: But she thinks Kelsey will get better care at UGA than at home. And with Kelsey on campus, no one else in the family is at risk if she gets exposed. But that doesn't mean Mom isn't anxious.

VANESSA: Now, am I going to be up all night tonight? Yeah. I'm going to be honest about that. Yeah.

NADWORNY: Across campus in the art building, professor Jon Swindler is prepping the studios for Thursday. That's when classes start, many of them in person. Faculty and staff have been working for months to come up with creative solutions to do in-person teaching.

JON SWINDLER: We looked at a lot of different options. You know, we even were looking into the possibility of holding class in a parking garage.

NADWORNY: They have easels set up outside for painting classes where it's easier to social distance. Inside, studios have been totally reconfigured.

SWINDLER: Come on in.

NADWORNY: Swindler brings us into a drawing studio. Normally, there'd be about 18 students in here.

SWINDLER: And so this semester is going to look and feel very different 'cause there's going to be about six or seven at a time in here.

NADWORNY: The school has invested not just time but financial resources into this reopening. The university is processing hundreds of COVID tests a day for students and staff. They spent about $800,000 to send out masks and thermometers.

But all of that effort on campus is for naught when night falls and students head off campus to party. By 11 p.m., the bar strip in downtown Athens is overflowing. There are students reuniting. They're hugging. They're talking really closely. They're not social distancing. Most are not wearing masks. And the success of the college's reopening plan - it's ultimately going to be decided in a place like this.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Athens, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.