Despite The Pandemic, Students Return To Full Dorms Across UNC System
Amanni King sits at the front desk of a residence hall at Fayetteville State University, killing time while she waits for students. She's a resident assistant and her first move-in day of the pandemic feels slow compared to the usual welcoming.
"We're just sitting waiting for the people," King said, between student move-in appointments.
The move-in day appointments are one of many precautions colleges are taking to promote social distancing and protect from the spread of the coronavirus, as hundreds of thousands of students descend on college campuses across North Carolina.
Most students at UNC system schools will take at least some of their classes online, but many underclassmen will still be living in close quarters.
Adrina Russell is the director of residence life at Fayetteville State University. Russell says she's doing everything she can to connect with students and parents, but it's just not a typical Welcome Week. Normally the campus would be swarming with families, balloons, the local radio station would visit, and faculty and staff would cheer on new students as their parents say goodbye.
"We're used to this really big pomp and circumstance and now it's broken down into several days," Russell said. "So it's been a little anticlimactic."
Even with the slow trickle of students right now, the residence halls will soon be at full capacity.
"Surprisingly, our housing numbers are pretty close to our regular capacity minus the buildings that are not online," Russell said.
By "not online," Russell means the two buildings that have been reserved to quarantine students who test positive for COVID-19.
Otherwise, residence halls at Fayetteville State are at full capacity. And that's true across almost the entire UNC system. It's a plan that the Centers for Disease Control calls the "highest risk" in its guidance.
That has many on campuses anxious, like UNC-Wilmington Creative Writing Professor Wendy Brenner. She's worried not only for herself and students, but for housekeepers across the UNC system who may be exposed to infectious students.
"I just feel emotional about it. I don't want to watch something that could've been avoided," Brenner said.
Brenner says that she's not an expert, but she trusts the CDC.
"And you know, lowest risk would be just not having students live in groups in dorms," Brenner said, citing the CDC's guidance.
But under UNC System guidance, that is not the route any public university in North Carolina can take. The UNC System is putting many other public safety measures in place, and some of the larger universities have splashy campaigns to get the message to students.
At Fayetteville State University, students are required to wear masks to every class, and could be barred from entering a classroom building without one. If a student is caught without a mask outside their dorm three times, they could risk losing their housing contract.
But Fayetteville State students and new roommates Promisse McNeil and Shamya Brawner say the hardest rule to follow is one inside their residence hall.
"No visitation!" McNeil said.
"Even though we all live in this hall, they still can't come in the room," Brawner said.
Students aren't allowed to go to other dorms or have anyone else in their room. McNeil and Brawner say they are glad to be back on campus and intend to follow the rules, but can't help thinking it will put a damper on their social lives.
"There's no events," McNeil said, lamenting the loss of homecoming and FSU's annual field day and rodeo.
"We just have to make the events ourselves," McNeil said.
Resident assistants will have to enforce all these rules. King says she's a little worried that inevitable rule bending could jeopardize the school year.
"I know that young adults don't listen, so there's a chance that people just don't want to follow the rules, so we might have to leave," King says, adding that she hopes that's not the case.
Administrators, staff, faculty and students will be crossing their fingers that this school year continues to be anticlimactic — without large-scale outbreaks or even deaths.
But no one has ever tested these safety precautions in such a large and crowded setting, so nobody really knows how this new school year will play out.