SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – Just before 10 a.m. Wednesday, Sophia Schiepek pulled her car, loaded down with some of the stuff needed to survive a year in a dorm room, into a parking lot driveway on the campus of Lake Superior State University.
A little more than an hour later, all that stuff had made it up into her room, even if it was just stacked here and there instead of tucked away in the back seat or trunk.
That's nothing new. Students have been coming to Lake State – Michigan's smallest public university – since the 1940s. While the styles of cars dropping off the students have evolved over the years, much of the process remains unchanged.
Until this year.
As universities across the U.S. welcome students back to campus during a pandemic, they are shaking up how they handle move-in and the hoops students have to jump through to get on campus. Out: crowds of people all trying to squeeze through the same dorm door while balancing suitcases and posters. In: carefully orchestrated periods of time when just one student has access to the entranceway. And don't forget to get a swab up your nose for a COVID-19 test before you do any unloading.
Lake State started moving in first-year students in late July. This week, returning students are moving onto the campus in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, overlooking the St. Mary's River and the Soo Locks.
Classes start Monday. The move-in and start were moved up as part of the university's reaction to the COVID pandemic. The early start puts Lake Superior State students among the earliest non-athlete students to arrive on a college campus in the nation and the first public university in Michigan to begin the fall semester.
Start early, finish early
Lake Superior State made the choice in mid-June to return this fall to face-to-face instruction, while moving up dates.
Other than a one-day break, school will be in session from Monday into November, keeping students on campus. The university is touting it as a get-here-stay-here philosophy, Provost Lynn Gillette said.
"We had very strong interest from our students for face-to-face instruction," he said, standing in the parking lot as move-in started. "We are prepping all the classrooms so we get social distancing. We're requiring everyone to wear masks – we're going to be pretty heavy on that."
About 10% of the university's classes are normally offered online. This semester is up a little bit to 13%. In order to keep classes face-to-face, the school is converting every possible space into classrooms and spreading out chairs. The chairs not being used are being stacked in the back of classrooms to give visual clues about the differences this year.
The low number of coronavirus cases in the rural area surrounding the college is helping the efforts to get back to face-to-face instruction. Lake State is located about an hour north of the Mackinac Bridge and several hours away from various hot spots in Michigan. As of Thursday evening, 37 cases had been reported in Chippewa County, where the university is located, according to the county website. School officials said they factored the number of cases into their decision.
Also factoring into the decision to bring back students was that a majority are first-generation college enrollees and a large proportion are low-income. Students would likely lack access to high-speed internet, making online classes even more challenging.
How the day went
As Schiepek, a 19-year-old sophomore studying environmental sciences, pulled into the parking lot, she was greeted by a college staffer, who checked her name off against a list of students scheduled to check-in.
On Wednesday, waves of students were set to arrive at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The university moved in 311 students last week and hundreds more were scheduled to move in this week. About 2,000 students are enrolled at the school.
After getting cleared, Schiepek drove down the length of a long parking lot and looped around a sign with a student sitting next to it, joining one of three lanes.
At the end of the lot were three large tents. Half of each tent was taken up by long tables with computers, forms and COVID-19 tests stacked on them. The other half of each tent was for vehicles to drive into.
Schiepek pulled in, putting a mask over her face as she rolled down her window. A masked staffer approached the car and began asking a series of questions about Schiepek's health, wanting to know whether she was experiencing any COVID-related symptoms or had been around anyone with the illness.
As the staffer walked back over to the tables to get a COVID test, another masked staffer walked about with the normal move-in information – a map of campus, a temporary parking permit for Schiepek and an extra one for her mom who was helping her move. There were also the keys to Schiepek's room and some unusual move-in paraphernalia – a selection of Lake State branded masks. Schiepek got to pick out two.
Then she was ready for the test, which is voluntary for students. She inserted a long swab into her nostril and then took it out. As she did, her eyes watered and she rubbed her nose. The staffer assured her that was normal and said some students have been sneezing after taking the tests, which provide quick results. As of Wednesday morning, none of the tests had come back positive, school officials said.
The tests done, Schiepek drove across the street to parking lot O, where she waited a couple of minutes for the student in front of her to finish unloading. Then she drove up to the door and was joined by her mom, who was driving a small SUV full of supplies.
Up and down the stairs they went, carrying in clothes, plants, a mini-refrigerator, a trombone and everything else needed to live at school.
Schiepek is living in a suite of rooms with seven other people. There's a big common area, with couches and chair, a table and other furniture. There's a large shared bathroom off that room toward the front of the suite. In the back are four rooms, each designed to have two people in it. Beds in those rooms can be bunked or separated.
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"It's going to be interesting," Schiepek said of the coming year. "I'm interested to see what everything looks like – is it just going to look like a Plexiglas prison?"
Schiepek said she didn't want to do an online semester, especially after having to go online last spring while on campus.
"My roommate left like right away when we went online, so I was just alone in my room," she said. "I had taken some online classes in high school, so I knew it didn't work for me."
She's not too worried about being around other students.
"We're old enough to be conscious of what needs to be done," she said. "I'm excited to see my friends. I haven't seen them in person in months."
While Lake State had deep cleaned residence halls, that didn't stop people from doing their own wiping down when they arrived.
Junior Rebecca Weipert and her parents did just that when they got to campus Wednesday.
"It's stressful to send them into something you don't know if it's truly safe or not. We know it's not 100% safe," William Weipert said. "We're excited for her to get to her halfway point, but we're equally as nervous about her having to do it this way."
This year Weipert brought extra masks and supplies for her own room. She has one of her five classes online because of the class size.
"A lot of students are saying they think that it's going to go back online because people aren't going to follow the rules," she said. "I really hope it doesn't happen. It's hard to learn online especially with certain classes. That's why we're here, to learn and get the full potential of every class to get that kind of education."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: COVID-19: Michigan college among 1st in U.S. to test campus living