Georgia college students return to changed campuses

Students listen to their chemistry teacher at Clayton State University on the first day students returned to school Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Students listen to their chemistry teacher at Clayton State University on the first day students returned to school Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Students returned Monday for their first day of classes at several public Georgia colleges and universities, but it was much quieter on the campuses than a typical back-to-school opening day.

The schools ended in-person instruction in March for the final two months of the spring semester when the coronavirus pandemic began impacting Georgia. Since then, the schools have implemented structural and policy changes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as face mask requirements in classrooms and other spaces.

There were substantially fewer students on campuses Monday as a result of the changes. Although the campuses are open, most classes have some online component. At Clayton State and Georgia Gwinnett, 54% and 41% of courses are being taught online, respectively. Nearly all of the other courses are being taught in a hybrid fashion, a mix of online learning and students coming once a week to a class instead of twice a week.

The most important goals, officials said, were to create some sense of normalcy and to avoid an outbreak of the disease. Administrators at the two schools, and others that reopened Monday, reported no major increase in COVID-19 cases. The schools have the option of doing their own on-site testing, working with community organizations and state public health officials. Students were asked to self-screen for disease symptoms before coming to class.

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Georgia’s largest public universities begin classes in the next two weeks. Many students, parents and faculty have raised concerns about the return plans, particularly after several private universities announced plans to go to online learning this semester.

The first day was different. Georgia Gwinnett students noticed more parking spaces available. At Clayton State, many first week activities, such as a career fair, are being done online.

“It’s muted,” Shakeer Abdullah, Clayton State’s vice president for student affairs, said of the mood on campus.

Clayton State University students line up to get their IDs on the first day students returned to school Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Clayton State University students line up to get their IDs on the first day students returned to school Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The two schools, on opposite sides of metro Atlanta, have enacted similar measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At Georgia Gwinnett, books in the Daniel J. Kaufman Library have to sit unused for 72 hours after they are returned since they cannot be wiped down. There’s plexiglass on the desks or lecterns of faculty members, but some faculty complained they aren’t high enough to completely shield them.

At Clayton State, students have assigned seating. Faculty are being given cameras so students not in the classroom can see the lectures and participate online.

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Students had mixed reactions about the return.

Jahmarey Sterling, 23, a psychology major at Georgia Gwinnett, said he fears taking the infection home to his parents, with whom he lives in Stone Mountain. Online schooling worked fine for him in the spring.

But exercise science student Juwon Merritt, 23, is relieved to be living on campus instead of back home in Gainesville, where he rarely ventured out for fear of bringing COVID-19 back home to his grandmother.

”I can actually hang out with a couple friends,” Merritt said.

Juwon Merritt, 23, exercise science major, at his job at the Ga Gwinnett fitness center. Most of the cardio machines are shrink-wrapped to maintain social distancing between the operational machines. TY TAGAMI/AJC
Juwon Merritt, 23, exercise science major, at his job at the Ga Gwinnett fitness center. Most of the cardio machines are shrink-wrapped to maintain social distancing between the operational machines. TY TAGAMI/AJC

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

There was some confusion, and forgetfulness, about the mask requirements.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh,” Clayton State’s president, Tim Hynes, said to a student who had her mask below her chin.

“Sorry,” the student replied before putting the mask over her nose and mouth.

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Second-year Clayton State pre-nursing student Whitney Smith was unsure if she could remove her mask in a student center to eat her sandwich. She could, an official told her. Smith and her friend, Calvin Williams, talked about the difficulty of not being able to see faculty members as frequently as he did last school year since appointment schedules are now more regulated.

“If you sit over here and I’m over here, what’s the difference?” asked Smith, pointing to a table with two chairs more than 6 feet apart.

Georgia Gwinnett digital media major Victoria Diaz, 22, was surprised by the absence of crowds. It likely won’t be so sparse next Monday when school resumes in full. This week was mostly online since it is a period when students drop and add classes.

”I don’t know what I expected,” Diaz said, “but I can tell you the parking is nice.”

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