On Friday night, Stephanie Swegle and her roommate participated in a near-sacred activity for University of Notre Dame students: They watched the movie “Rudy.”
The first-year students sat in the stands of the football stadium next to each other, wearing masks. About 6 feet away, another set of roommates settled in for the feel-good flick. Six feet from there, another pair.
Ms. Swegle, an 18-year-old biology major from Seattle, had an odd introduction to college life but her experience at Notre Dame, which brought students back last week and begins classes Monday, provides a preview for what others may expect.
Hundreds of thousands of students will descend on campuses around the country in coming weeks, beginning their fall terms under unprecedented circumstances. Move-in is tightly scheduled, and parents are discouraged from lingering too long as they say their goodbyes. Masks are a must. Orientation events are conducted outdoors, in small groups, or virtually.
This summer, many colleges and universities revised their reopening plans, shifting classes online and discouraging students from coming to campus as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread across the country. On Thursday, Johns Hopkins University said undergraduate instruction would move online; a day later, Princeton University said it would have a virtual fall for all undergraduates, rather than bringing first-year students and juniors back to campus.
Yet some institutions, including the University of Michigan and Louisiana State University, will welcome students back on campus. All are making at least some adjustments, like having large lectures online or requiring students to sign up for a time to pick up their lunch. Many also have asked students to sign contracts agreeing to follow public-health guidelines, like not hosting or attending large parties.
Notre Dame required that students submit a negative Covid-19 test result within seven days before arriving on its South Bend, Ind., campus. Unlike many other colleges, it doesn’t plan on conducting mass testing of asymptomatic students throughout the term and didn’t require students to quarantine themselves for a period upon arrival. As of Friday, the school said it had one positive case on campus, and six other people in quarantine as a precautionary measure.
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Hundreds of students and faculty have signed a petition requesting that the school conduct more widespread testing, expressing concern about virus exposure as students travel from around the country after taking their tests. Indiana’s seven-day positivity rate is 5.2%, according to the latest data on the state’s health-department website.
Notre Dame said it has taken many precautions in reopening campus to students, including deep-cleaning facilities, stocking 10,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and repurposing auditoriums to space out larger classes.
It also has plastered campus with more than 50,000 signs reminding people to wash their hands, wear masks when they are in close proximity to others and to stay 6 feet apart when possible. They have images of Touchdown Jesus, marking 6 feet between raised arms.
Upon arrival, students got welcome bags stocked with a refillable bottle of hand sanitizer, a thermometer and a set of cloth Notre Dame face masks. Students can pick up food from dining halls but must eat elsewhere, including in outdoor tents erected around campus. And they will have assigned seats in classrooms to help with contact tracing in case other students test positive.
“I’m really excited to be on campus,” said Sam Anderson, who drove with his family from Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho last week. His mother stocked him with a giant container of hand sanitizer, Lysol spray and disinfecting wipes.
Still, there is a nagging worry in the background. “I’m nervous there could be a hot spot in South Bend and things could get out of control pretty fast,” Mr. Anderson said.
Reports of off-campus parties have popped up on social media. And the school’s president, Father John I. Jenkins, issued an apology Thursday after a group photo showing him flanked by a few dozen students made the rounds online.
“While all of the scientific evidence indicates that the risk of transmission is far lower outdoors than indoors, I want to remind you (and myself!) that we should stay at least six feet apart,” he wrote. “I am sorry for my poor example, and I am recommitting to do my best.”
Elizabeth Gonzalez is getting to know the other women in her dorm by sitting in the hall, while they sit near the doorway inside their own rooms.
“It’s a little awkward, but we feel compelled to make this work,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who came to school from Crown Point, Ind., about 75 miles away.
She and her roommate haven’t had an explicit conversation about their Covid-19 concerns yet, but plan to. “I have to trust when she goes outside,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “Whatever she experiences out there she will be transmitting to me.”
Ryan Wachter drove to South Bend from New Jersey with his parents and moved into school last week. They sat together—but not near anyone else—in the football stadium for a welcome Mass, which was also streamed online to keep the in-person crowd small. He went to learn about campus clubs with other students from his dorm and participated in a scavenger hunt. It is almost like regular new-student orientation, with one big difference: Meeting new people is challenging when the strangers are all wearing face coverings.
“You’re trying to get to know someone and put a face to a name, but you don’t get to see their face,” said Mr. Wachter, an engineering student. “You don’t get to see who they really are.”