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Students Have Moved In At Most Illinois Universities. Can It Last?

Peter Medlin
Northern Illinois University

Move-in day is normally a frenzy. At large schools like Northern Illinois University, thousands of students descend onto campus; student organizations pass around sign-up sheets in crowded dorms, maybe even the football team helps unload furniture.

Not this time. This year, students made appointments to move into dorms over the course of several days.

David Lewis just transferred to NIU from a community college in his home state of Missouri. He and his dad drove in the night before to get an early start. He came for the political science department and the marching band.

“I'm a little nervous, but I'm overall very excited to be here," he said. "It's a really good school and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

His dad -- also David -- has, like many parents dropping off their kids for the first time, some mixed emotions.

“As a father, I guess I'm probably more nervous than he is," he said. "He's more excited. You know, I'm more nervous about him being in a new place six hours from home. Right in the middle of a pandemic as well, but I'm excited for him and I'm extremely proud of him.”

At NIU, they’d typically have somewhere between 3,500-4,000 students living on-campus. They’re expecting about 1,000 fewer students this year.

The college experience is built to bring students together, to meet new people and find your community.

But everyone living on-campus this fall will have their own room, both to allow for distancing and reduce the student density in the residence halls.

Mike Stang is the Assistant VP for Student Affairs. He knows this year will be different than normal, but said they’re trying to minimize those differences.

Credit Peter Medlin
Socially-distanced move-in at NIU

“We're still working actively to create community in the residence halls, although some of it’s going to be virtual,” he said. “For example, every floor is going to have a community group that will be set up through Microsoft Teams.”

Stang said that if students have to get together in dorms, there are capacity limits, and they should physically distance and wear masks. Also, aside from lobbies and dining areas, visitors are prohibited.

NIU also set aside some rooms if students need to quarantine, but Stang says they prefer for students to go home if they can in those cases.

John Murray was loading a cart, helping his daughter move in. He said it’s hard not to think about other universities seeing clusters of positive tests after reopening.

“That's the scary part, but she's going to be doing some of her classes online. And some of them she has to go to labs and stuff," said Murray. "But the scary part is that you're more vulnerable here then somewhere else."

The University of North Carolina recently switched to virtual learning after it saw cases rise. The University of Alabama reported more than 500 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

NIU made a substantial portion of classes online or hybrid to discourage big groups. The university also made students sign a pledge to follow the community guidelines. It can be more difficult to ensure safety measures off-campus, where large swaths of students live.

DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith already acknowledged large parties on campus over the first weekend. 

Rockford University is a much smaller private school but have had to take their own precautions. Randy Worden is the university’s VP for Student Life. They have 350 students living on-campus, which is what they expected. Over the summer, he says they thought it could be much fewer because of safety restrictions

Credit Peter Medlin

“The actual reality has been kind of the opposite of that," he said. "It seems like people were so ready to have a different experience than what they were having, maybe at home. Students were willing to say, ‘Okay, I understand it's not going to be 100% of normal kind of collegiate experience, but if it's 70 or 75, that's good enough.”

RU removed around half of the furniture in common areas. Buildings cut occupancy in half or capped them at 50 people.

In classes, available seats have signs taped to them to try and ensure distancing. RU has installed yards of plexiglass around campus, especially in buildings and offices where hundreds of students have to interact with one person.

Worden said the issue for them is that, because they’re such a small community, people get comfortable around each other. That comfort could lead to a false sense of security, and people could get casual about wearing masks and distancing.

But whether it be large public schools like NIU or small private ones like Rockford, it takes more than just safety guidelines to prevent COVID outbreaks.

It will likely take thousands of students, often independent for the first time after having prom and graduation canceled, to sacrifice the college experience they'd hoped for since high school in the name of public health. And even then, positive tests – and, possibly, an outbreak -- may still be inevitable.