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U of M students brace for change when classes resume

By Peter Cox, Minnesota Public Radio News

As University of Minnesota students prepare for classes to begin in a couple of weeks, they know they are able to plan for only so much. Already some higher education institutions have had to abruptly stop in-person classes because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

The pandemic has at the very least muddled an important time in college students’ lives.

“I’m getting used to the fact that things are just going to be new and that I’m just gonna have to create a new experience and that nobody else knows what that looks like, yet,” said Charlotte Stolfa, who starts at the University of Minnesota in a couple weeks. They graduated from Lakeville North High School in the spring.

“A lot of people older than me expect me to be very sad about losing the freshman experience that they had,” Stolfa said. “I’m mostly just cautiously curious about what’s going to happen. I’m definitely preparing for whatever they could throw at me.”

For students heading to campus, there seems to be a lot more unknown than known at the moment. Classes that would’ve been in person have shifted to remote learning — at least 70 percent of U classes were supposed to be online as of late July. Welcome week events are online. And a major feature of life on a Big Ten campus — college football — is not happening this fall.

“I’m a little bit sad that I’m gonna maybe miss out on some of the ‘traditional college experience,’ but I’m also trying to remember that everyone’s doing their best,” said Cady Isom, also a freshman at the U. She’s studying at the college of Biological Sciences.

“They’ve been honest with us and that things are kind of open to change,” Isom said. “Things could change at any point, and you sort of need to be ready for anything.”

On the front porch of the law fraternity house near the University of Minnesota, a group of four law students played a hodgepodge of instruments, some borrowed. Roommates are finding ways to keep themselves entertained without having to go out.

“They have strategies of, like dealing with, you know, like cabin fever that I didn’t necessarily have, since I didn’t really have anyone living with me.” said first-year law student Caleb Nigrin.

He just moved into a house with 11 roommates. Nigrin is happy to have some friends through his housing situation, but he said starting at a new school during a pandemic is strange.

“Law school orientation is a great time where you get to meet other students and meet professors and not being able to do that face to face is going to make making connections with people difficult,” Nigrin said.

Fellow law school student Jordan Hughes is somewhat worried about undergraduates who might not follow health guidelines. Minnesota officials say students should isolate themselves for two weeks before school starts, avoiding house parties and bars. And face coverings are mandatory in many public situations.

Hughes is watching closely as the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have halted in-person classes when dozens of COVID-19 cases were diagnosed at each institution.

“A part of me expects Minnesota to follow suit in that I expect the undergraduate [classes] to not be in person for very long. I don’t know if the law school will be [going fully remote] or not,” he said.

Part of the second-year curriculum is about learning to interact with clients. Hughes said he’s supposed to take on some of his first clients this year.

But despite all the flexibility required in this moment, “I also feel very glad to be in school and have a couple years of security in what I’m doing before I have to re-enter the economy on my own.”

In a letter to students and staff, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said administrators will prioritize health and safety, and will continue to adjust their approach to classes and other aspects of campus life when needed.