KINGSTON, R.I. — Though these former high school seniors had an abrupt end to their last school year, it only helped to build excitement about starting their first year of college, said several while hauling belongings into University of Rhode Island dormitories this week.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but I’m really glad to be on campus,” said Olivia Litzenberger of Abington, MA. Along with her parents, Annah and Michael, she unloaded clothes and other necessities bridging one part of her life to a new world she’s about to enter.
“It’s definitely going to be different from what I thought it would be, but URI has taken a lot of steps to make sure we’re going to be safe here,” she said, with nodding agreement from both of her parents.
Many others echoed similar feelings as URI officials undertook what they say is a major change, by slowing down to a near crawl move-in day for first-year students.
They and others get the limited housing space this year on campus as coronavirus precautions sweep through colleges and universities welcoming students to a new — and unprecedented — school year.
In previous years, the college tradition across the country had students and parents swarming around dormitories, on-campus apartments and fraternity and sorority houses as classes cranked up.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that for this school, whose classes start next week.
Kathy Collins, URI vice president of student affairs, was on hand to see and help with those moving to the campus.
“What a different year. We normally wouldn’t be here now,” she said about the advance move-in schedule from Aug. 24 to Sept. 8, when students and parents arrive on campus, get tested for COVID-19, immediately go to student housing, unload cars while wearing masks and keeping distance from others, then spend a bit of time arranging the room before leaving.
Usually this campus houses about 6,200 students, but this year social distancing and other precautions to prevent a COVID-19 spread has reduced that number to 4,500.
In June, the university announced the need to lower the capacity to ensure that all on-campus bedrooms in residence halls would have only one or two occupants based on building design and restrooms.
URI said its decision is consistent with prevailing health and safety recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as practices at other universities across the United States.
In addition, students who cannot have on-campus housing will have the opportunity to live in three local hotels that have agreed to house URI students for the upcoming fall semester.
The university said it is leasing or renting the entirety of two hotels and three floors of the third hotel. URI said it began talks with the local hotel operators as campus leaders formulated policies to reduce the number of students living on campus.
With the hotels several miles away, these first-year students said they felt lucky to have the experience of living in the middle of this academic universe.
“I’m lucky to have a place right here,” said Daniela Duran of Cranston as she moved carts of clothes, hangers, boxes and shoes into Butterfield Hall, not far from the spacious green-lawned “quad” area lined with historic buildings.
Her mother, Julia DeFruscio, also of Cranston, and sister Jeankarla Duran helped.
“She’s my youngest daughter. I have mixed emotions and sad that I will be by myself. I trust, though, that she will do what is right regarding COVID. I think the school is taking strong precautions,” said DeFruscio.
Joseph Gagliano, a first-year student from Fairfield, NJ, said he was looking forward to meeting new people, developing friendships and soaking in as much of the expected college experience as he can.
Watching the movers as they walked by were recent second-year arrivals Emmett Munterich, of Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, and Peyton Theil, of Meriden, CT.
“It feels good to be back. We left in a hurry March 10. I’ve been here two days now,” Munterich said, and said he hasn’t really absorbed all the social distancing and other changes for how classes will be held yet.
“Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet,” he said with a laugh. He’s taking one in-classroom course and four online courses, which are structured to limit numbers of students in classrooms and the need to clean them afterwards.
Theil commented, “I’m just happy we could come back. The school is doing well to keep us safe.”
David M. Dooley, university president, was also walking the grounds to observe, watch the move-in process and talk to incoming students.
“There’s no doubt that anyone serving in higher ed has ever dealt with anything like this,” he said about all the reorganizing, adjusting, planning and re-designing of classroom instruction, on- and off-campus living and basic life in an academic community responding to fears of the coronavirus.
Colleges and universities failing to reign in the behavior of students, whose under-developed brains make them prone to taking risks, could tag the institutions as spectacles for spreaders of the virus.
Asked if this thought or others keep him awake at night, Dooley replied no. He said he has confidence in his senior leadership team and other university teams to manage students and their learning in a COVID-risk campus environment.
However, constant communication about the risks — and even academic consequences such as suspensions — will be needed to ensure students, whether living on or off campus, protect themselves and others, he said.
Local police and town officials are also concerned for similar reasons and will be watching for excessive gatherings, especially of students. They, as well as landlords, could face fines and citations.
Dooley said he’s aware of the need for students to follow the good-neighbor policy in nearby towns while living in private rental housing or visiting friends who do. He added that the substance of the message to students is clear.
“Be thoughtful, look at what you’re doing and make smart choices,” he said.