DULUTH – A few days into her new home at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Avery Eckman was confident she and her fellow students will push through the pandemic and get to live on campus the entire semester.
Confident, but not cavalier.
“We don’t want to get it, we don’t want to have to quarantine,” said the 18-year-old biology student from Brainerd. “We all know we’re trying to keep each other safe, and we don’t all want to get sent home in two weeks.”
Students started moving into UMD residence halls on Wednesday and will continue through Sunday as students started living on campus again for the first time in six months.
Their arrival comes as COVID-19 cases continue to rise fastest among those aged 15-24 in Duluth and St. Louis County.
“I think it’s inevitable we’ll see cases associated with colleges and universities,” said Amy Westbrook, the county’s public health division director. “That shouldn’t be shocking to anybody.”
UMD officials say they’re well prepared to prevent the spread of the virus and contain any potential outbreaks through contact tracing and quarantines. How fast or widely cases spread could come down to choices students make in the coming months.
“Until we have a vaccine we’re really relying on individual behavior,” Westbrook said.
As of Sept. 3, two students had tested positive through UMD’s health services; those tested off campus are not included in the university’s count. The students were moved to two of the 196 isolation and quarantine rooms the university set aside for such cases.
There are about 2,200 students living on campus this semester, down from the 2,900 who typically reside in residence halls.
“It’s not insignificant,” said Housing and Residence Life Director Jeremy Leiferman. “Some of that is intentional as we wanted to reduce some of the capacity.”
He and other UMD officials had an extra two weeks to prepare for students after U President Joan Gabel delayed move-in before the semester began Aug. 31 as other institutions around the country suffered early outbreaks.
Students living at UMD are under a 10-day on-campus quarantine, part of a four-step process that will ease into nightly curfews and, eventually, no restrictions on student movement should COVID-19 transmission remain under control.
Leiferman said enforcement will focus first on education before escalating to discipline for those students who “don’t grasp the expectations.”
“If students are following those expectations,” such as masking, social distancing and avoiding gatherings, “that will help us get through the semester,” he said.
In August, department heads at UMD’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering sent a letter urging administrators to better prepare for the pandemic. The two-week delay for move-in and the four-step “Maroon and Gold Sunrise” plan were announced by Gabel not long after.
Liz James, a ceramics professor, said she prepared her studio with limited interaction in mind, taping all her demonstrations so students don’t need to huddle around as they had before.
“I feel pretty good because I know what measures I’ve taken and the measures the university has taken,” she said. “I’m not worried about us on campus, I’m just crossing my fingers our students see what happens when they don’t abide by rules — that they may be sent home.”
Eckman, who has her eyes on medical school when she graduates and came to UMD to play volleyball, said one downside to the not-quite-traditional first year of school is that it’s harder to meet people. Her Snapchat handle was written on the marker board on her door in Griggs Hall.
“A lot of it’s through social media because we’re quarantining,” said Eckman, whose roommate moves in Sunday.
Overall, she feels comfortable with the precautions in place.
“I know all the faculty and professors have been really good at planning and adjusting everything,” Eckman said. “After having a senior year with everything canceled, prom, graduations — whatever happens happens and we’ll be OK with it.”