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Wake Forest University students return to campus and hope they can stay

Wake Forest University students return to campus and hope they can stay

In a normal year, all first-year Wake Forest University students move into their dorm rooms on the same day. Older students and football players turn out in droves to welcome the new freshmen and their families. There are crowds and lines and plenty of off-to-college excitement.

This year, however, first-year students moved in over four days this week because of the social distancing that Wake Forest and other schools are using to keep COVID-19 at bay. Students say it's a much more subdued affair this year.

This year's move-in took place during a particularly uncertain time. As more than 5,000 Wake Forest undergraduates returned to Winston-Salem this week, students at two other North Carolina universities are preparing to move back home less than a month after they got there. Although Wake Forest on Friday reported several new cases of COVID-19, Wake Forest students say they're confident they'll be able to stay on campus through the fall semester.

Student move-in went smoothly this week, said Matthew Clifford, the university's dean of residence life and housing. About 1,400 new first-year students had checked in by Thursday. Another 2,350 upperclass students who are living in campus housing are scheduled to move in by Monday. For both new and returning students, move-in was an entirely redesigned experience.

"We've got to be flexible ..." Clifford said. "We know we have to engage differently and make sure everybody can stay safe."

For starters, Wake Forest asked all undergraduates to quarantine themselves for two weeks before coming to campus. Students also had to have tested negative recently for COVID-19. Students signed up in advance for a time to move in. And when the day arrived, they could bring only two other helpers and had just two hours to haul their clothes, electronics and other stuff from the car to the dorm room.

Another big change: Many students don't have roommates this year, Clifford said. Normally, about one third of Wake Forest's dorm rooms are single-occupancy. This year, two-thirds of them are singles to cut down on density in the residence halls. That decision led to a couple of other changes: Wake Forest let more students live off campus this fall. (Wake Forest waived the requirement for some students that they live in campus housing for at least six semesters.) Wake Forest also leased space in apartments near campus for about 250 students who wanted university housing.

First-year student Shon Howard left home in Orlando around 9 p.m. Sunday and drove through the night with his mom, Rhonza Howard. The pair arrived at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum a little before 9 a.m. Monday. (That was another change this year, Clifford said. Students normally go straight to their residence hall.) There, Howard picked up his room key, his move-in day parking pass and a COVID-19 kit that included a thermometer and two face masks.

Howard said the process moved quickly, was well organized and, most importantly, wasn't crowded. One problem: He hadn't yet gotten back the results of his COVID-19 test.

Howard said he felt fine and had diligently kept himself quarantined back home in Florida. And because Howard has his own room, the university said he could move in. There was one other condition, Howard said: He had to stay away from other people until he got his test results.

So Howard and his mom unloaded the car and made a quick trip to Walmart to pick up a few more things. Later Monday, he walked around campus by himself — "I had my (hand) sanitizer and my mask, and I kept my distance," he said — and ate dinner by himself in his dorm room. At 11 that night, his phone dinged. It was an email with his test results: negative.

"I was like, Thank you!" said Howard, who plans to study secondary education. "I was so happy."

Caroline Searcy arrived right after Howard from her home in Wilson. During move-in, she saw only three other people in the residence hall. Because there were no volunteers to help students unload, Searcy and her parents, Beth and Doug Searcy, had to make a bunch of trips up and down the stairs to her second-floor dorm room.

"I brought a lot of stuff," said Searcy, a freshman. "That's on me."

After moving in, Searcy's next task was to meet people — not an easy thing to do when freshman orientation is online and everyone is wearing masks. But Wake Forest set up big event tents with picnic tables around campus to give students dry and shady places to hang out. There's also a mobile app that helps students meet up for bike rides, scavenger hunts or other socially-distanced activities.

Searcy's favorite meet-and-greet spot is a tent by The Pit, the university's main dining hall. Everyone has been eager to make friends, she said.

"If you see a group of girls eating at a picnic table, it's not weird to go up and introduce yourself," said Searcy, who plans to major in politics and international affairs. "I've met a lot of people — I don't even remember all of their names."

A big topic of on-campus conversation has been this week's news that UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State will finish the fall semester online. Sudden spikes in COVID-19 cases among students and rapid increases in students who needed to be quarantined prompted both universities to pull the plug on in-person classes after two weeks.

Could the same thing happen at Wake Forest?

Both Howard and Searcy said they've been encouraged so far. Students are wearing masks, keeping their distance and getting constant reminders about the new expectations of campus life during a pandemic.

The latest message came Friday from President Nathan Hatch, who told students that "(e)arlier today, I learned of several new confirmed COVID-19 cases among Wake Forest students related to small off-campus social gatherings." A Wake Forest spokeswoman declined to disclose an exact number Friday but said the university plans to launch a public dashboard next week that will show COVID-19 cases and other related data.

Hatch reminded students that parties and small gatherings both on and off campus can be high-risk settings for spreading the virus.

"The stakes are high this semester. That is our reality," Hatch said. "Our success relies on each person doing their part. Please remember as we go into the weekend (that) one large gathering, one party that infects a large number of people, can close us down."

There's a consensus among returning students that they want to stay at Wake Forest for the entire semester, said Ally Swartzberg, a junior from New Jersey. If that means following a lot more rules than normal, then so be it, she said.

"There's a lot of buy-in," said Swartzberg, who serves as speaker of the house in the Student Government Association. "They said, 'We don't want to ruin (seniors') last year on campus.'"

Miles Middleton, the Student Government Association president, said he feels for the freshmen. Their senior year of high school was interrupted by the coronavirus. They missed out on prom and graduation. And now their first year of college is, well, different.

It'll be important for returning students to follow the rules, be good role models for freshmen and make the new students feel comfortable, said Middleton, a senior from New York. Wake Forest, he said, is a small and connected place with a strong community and a good plan for dealing with COVID-19. That'll help.

What happened at UNC-CH and N.C. State was a reality check, Middleton said.

"We have an opportunity to look at where we are now and shift policy to where it needs to be so we avoid that situation ..." Middleton said. "We really are in this together."

Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.​

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