The usual anticipation of students coming into their first semester at the University of Georgia is underscored this year by concerns of safety in light of the coronavirus.
“I don’t want to be in an environment where I could get it or infect other people … It’s scary being in that environment with so many people I’ve never been around before,” said Ethan Schmitt, an incoming freshman chemistry major from Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell.
Student worries reflect the concerns of the university as they work to come up with a plan that balances student and staff safety with financial concerns and the on-campus experience that no one wants to miss out on.
The new normal
For many incoming freshmen, concerns about hygiene and safety in crowded college areas, like dorms and dining halls, are at the front of their mind.
“I’m just more anxious about wanting to be on campus and get back to normalcy,” said Lindsey Aden, an incoming agribusiness and political science double major from Saint Joseph-Ogden High School in St. Joseph, Illinois. Omeir Honda, another incoming freshman from Harrison High School in Kennesaw, is “more concerned about not getting the full experience than anything.”
Although the size of UGA’s campus and student body is an exciting part of coming to campus for many freshmen, for Ashley Briseno, an incoming biology student from Fitzgerald High School in Fitzgerald, the amount of people coming to campus is a concern. She said she would feel a lot better if everyone got tested for COVID-19 before the semester started.
Despite varying concerns about returning to campus, all of the incoming students we spoke to are hoping for an on-campus semester, but would still feel safest with some social distancing guidelines being put in place.
“I’m scared that it might be worse because people are getting really comfortable returning to their lives,” said Christina Zaprianova, an incoming international business and finance double major from Parkview High School in Lilburn. She wants to see students practicing social distancing on campus for the safety of everyone.
For freshmen, an area of concern that impacts them the most is the safety of areas such as the dorms and dining halls.
“With dorms you’re with a lot of people and using communal bathrooms. [You’re] going from social distancing to being with hundreds of people daily. There doesn’t seem like there's a way to improve that,” said Joyce Shepherd, a home-schooled student and incoming intended finance major from Evans.
Concerns over communal bathrooms as a hot-spot for contamination have led some students to opt for apartment-style dorms like those in University Village or East Campus Village over the traditional highrises like Creswell, Brumby or Russell Halls.
“I’m in a safer spot than other students,” said Lorene Parker, an incoming agricultural business student from Rockmart High School in Rockmart, who is planning on living in an apartment-style dorm in East Campus Village. Parker also expressed concerns about transportation on campus and how normally packed buses would be made safer.
Crowded dining halls, just like crowded buses, are commonplace on campus, especially during peak hours. While living in a dorm may be unavoidable for some freshmen, some students, like Zaprianova, are considering skipping a meal plan for their freshman year because of concerns of cleanliness and proper social distancing.
Briseno said that going to the dining hall feels similar to going to the mall because of the large amounts of people that gather there. In her opinion, if malls can be safely open, she thinks dining halls probably can too.
Parker also said she thinks that dining halls should be open but that it may be a good idea to consider take-out options like many restaurants have been doing, or limiting the amount of people eating there at one time.
Despite personal preferences and concerns over discomfort and inconvenience, all of the students we spoke with are willing to accept any measures UGA may put in place if it means that they can come to campus.
Nataly Garcia, an incoming engineering student from Buford High School in Buford, said she would wear a mask even if the university did not make it mandatory.
“I go everywhere with a mask. It’s kind of the norm now,” said Garcia.
Other students would be willing to comply if it were mandatory but would not want to wear masks if they had a choice. Aden said she knows how uncomfortable wearing masks can be because she works nine hours a day.
Shepherd also said she would most likely not wear a mask if it were not mandatory and thinks that masks should be optional if students are already socially distancing.
Overall, all of the students we spoke with agreed that a mask, or any other preventative measures, would be worth it to be able to come to campus in the fall.
“Wearing a mask is such a small thing compared to not going to campus,” said Milan Chokshi, an incoming accounting and financial planning student from Johns Creek High School in Johns Creek. “As a freshman, it’s a big deal,” he added about the possibility of missing out on on-campus experiences.
Students were also open to reporting their symptoms regularly, having their temperatures checked before entering buildings and even the use of contact tracing. They said that these kinds of proactive measures would make them feel safer on campus.
“I think that it would be necessary and I think a lot of people would be used to it. It would be a responsible thing to do,” said Shepherd. Other students like Garcia, Aden and Parker also said that they were already used to this from going to work and church and thought others probably were as well.
While Honda was also on board with tracking students’ symptoms, he expressed concerns about students accurately and truthfully reporting their own symptoms.
“I would want something that’s not self-reporting,” he said. “There’s always people who aren’t comfortable with reporting the truth.”
Balancing safety with college traditions
Temperature checks at the entrance of buildings are one way to make sure that any students with COVID-19 are identified. Some incoming students, like Parker, who hopes to have a football season in the fall, think that also having temperature checks at entrance gates on game days is a good idea.
She and most of the other students we spoke with said they think downsizing the amount of spectators in the stadium in order to preserve some social distancing would be a good option in order to not forfeit the whole season.
“Social distancing is something of a fantasy [at football games] in my opinion,” said Honda, who also said that he thinks “there is too much money at stake for the university to sacrifice the football season.”
Parker added that “if people don’t want to be exposed, it’s their choice not to come.”
Canceling the football season represents other concerns for students like Garcia, who will be part of the Redcoat Band in the fall. Garcia’s concerns involve both the safety and health of football players, cheerleaders and the marching band, and the experience of participating in the games that they would all miss out on if football were canceled.
As always, Georgia fans’ dedication to football runs deep, resulting in differing opinions on if and how UGA should plan to have a football season.
“It’s one of the most important things about UGA. Every Georgia fan would be kind of sad [if the season were canceled],” said Garcia.
A few of the students that we spoke with felt that there wasn’t a way to safely have a football season. Zaprianova said that if conditions haven’t improved by the time football season comes around, a football game would be one of the worst events to have because of the amount of people in one area.
While spectators in the stadium can be limited through ticket sales, a unique challenge is presented by the throngs of die-hard UGA fans that roll in from out of town on game days to tailgate on UGA’s lawns and in its parking lots.
“I feel like [they’re] still going to show up to Athens, tailgate and watch the game in Athens,” said Chokshi about whether he thinks limiting the number of spectators in the stadium would be enough to keep students safe.
Schmitt also had concerns about tailgating, saying that “mass tailgates would not be a good idea.” He said that placing some restrictions on how people can tailgate and how many people can be in one group could help lessen the risk.
No matter how different their opinions may be on what UGA should do in the fall, all of the students we spoke with agreed on one thing: having an online semester should be an absolute last resort.
“I think fully online would not be the best use of our time and would not give us the best opportunity to learn from one another,” said Aden.
Parker, along with other students, was concerned about the impact on on-campus organizations, which she was looking forward to getting involved with, if fall semester were online. She also said that she would like to see tuition lowered if all classes were online.
Despite the fact that online classes were their worst-case scenario, most students said that a decision to go online would not deter them from enrolling.
“It’s kind of scary but I trust UGA,” said Garcia. She and the other students we spoke to feel that UGA will make the best choice possible that prioritizes their health. Getting the college experience in Athens, even if it were delayed to spring semester, remains their first priority.
“There’s virtually nothing that would keep me from enrolling,” said Zaprianova.