GORHAM — Students arriving at the University of Southern Maine on Tuesday faced a very different start to the school year as they kicked off move-in with mandatory COVID-19 testing and quarantine and prepared to take most of their classes online this fall.

Masked attendants directed traffic between a testing center at Costello Sports Complex and dorm parking lots where families were allowed to send only one person per student to help bring items inside. Outside Upperclass Hall a grab-and-go station was set up with sandwiches, pasta salad and chips to feed students while they await test results and spend up to the next three days in quarantine.

“I’m a little nervous because everything’s so new,” said Mia-Tatyana Hendricks, a senior unpacking a U-Haul trailer with her mother and boyfriend in the dorm parking lot. “I’m a returning student and I’m like ‘I know how to do this. I know the ropes,’ but now there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot up in the air. I’m trying to stay positive and confident in my academics and that I’ll be able to function through the dysfunction.”

Most students at USM live off-campus and commute, but those who live on campus began moving in Tuesday. Classes start Monday.

University of Southern Maine senior Mia-Tatyana Hendricks of Etna moves back to campus on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The return comes as universities around the country are grappling with how to welcome students back in-person while preventing coronavirus outbreaks. Some campuses have already had to backtrack on reopening plans and move classes online, while others are disciplining students for failing to adhere to social distancing and safety precautions.

The University of Maine at Orono, the state’s flagship campus, also began move-in this week and reported a fourth case among its students Tuesday. The student is in the same fraternity as a student who tested positive last week and represents the fifth positive case systemwide. Almost 1,400 tests have been conducted.

Like other campuses in the system, all USM students coming from out of state, living in dorms and other groups like athletes and those participating in off-campus clinicals, must be tested upon arrival.

Students are then being asked to quarantine in their dorms while waiting for test results, which is estimated to take at most 72 hours.

“The testing protocols are about finding positive cases so once we have them we know how to isolate and appropriately quarantine,” USM President Glenn Cummings said. “It’s important that people understand the expectation is there. Certainly we will have positive cases and that’s the whole purpose of our testing, is to find out and do something about it.”

USM freshman Juliana Gudaitis and her father, Jim Gudaitis, of Winslow carry belongings into Woodward Hall on Tuesday during move-in day. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Enrollment at USM, the state’s second largest public university, is up about 1 percent compared with the same time last year, with 7,028 students enrolled as of Tuesday, 5,462 undergraduates and 1,566 graduate students.

Systemwide there are about 27,000 students enrolled, including high school students enrolled in early college. Undergraduate enrollment is down about 2.4 percent compared to 2019, while graduate enrollment, including the University of Maine School of Law, is up 10.2 percent.

USM also has seen a surge in graduate enrollment as well as out-of-state enrollment, but a slight lag in new undergraduate enrollments, possibly because of students taking gap years or in-state students choosing to stay home. New undergraduate enrollment at USM is down about 6.5 percent, with about half of those students deferring to the spring or next fall.

There will also be fewer students in dorms this year across the UMaine System, which has reduced residential capacity to allow for more single-occupancy rooms and physical distancing. At USM, 728 students will live on campus in Gorham this year compared to 1,223 last year.

The feeling on campus Tuesday was a mix of excitement and trepidation, as many students and their families said they were happy to be on campus but unsure of how closely physical distancing precautions will be followed and what online classes will look like.

USM junior Kalob Richardson of Athens moves back to campus on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

About 53 percent of USM students will be taking their classes completely online this fall, 45 percent will be taking classes in a blended format with some in-person and some online learning and only 2 percent will take classes completely in-person.

The university system also has issued guidance prohibiting students from hosting or attending gatherings or parties that exceed Maine’s group size limitations.

“I think students want their semester to be complete,” Cummings said. “They don’t want us to have to shut down abruptly. The spirit of selflessness and collaboration is imminent. We also know we will certainly find and potentially dismiss students who are flagrantly in violation of safety protocols.”

Some students Tuesday said that while they plan to follow the rules, they are skeptical their peers will.

“It’s college,” said Jake Rescia, a sophomore from Springfield, Massachusetts. “You’re going to have people who are knuckleheads or make mistakes and are going to make it unsafe, but there is nothing the school can do. The only thing you can do is punish them once they’re caught.”

Amya Carlin, a junior from upstate New York, said she thinks students at schools in northern states will do a better job of adhering to restrictions on gatherings and safety rules than students at schools in southern states, where virus numbers have recently been higher.

“I just don’t know what to expect,” Carlin said. “I feel like it’s not going to last long, but I don’t know.”

USM freshman Madison Wood of New Milford, Conn., hugs her mother, Robyn Wood, before her family leaves after moving into her dorm room Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

For the most part, students were happy to return to campus, even if some or most of their classes will be online.

“It’s definitely difficult,” said Robyn Wood, whose daughter, Madison Wood, is a freshman. “I cried halfway here, but it’s exciting for her.”

Madison Wood said two of her classes will be online and two will be blended, meaning she will attend in-person one day per week. “I think it’s good,” she said. “I’m happy we’re at least able to go in to class.”

The Woods, who are from Connecticut, said that while it has been scary to watch campuses around the country respond to outbreaks, they feel a little safer due to the low coronavirus numbers in Maine and the size of USM.

USM student Amaya Carlin of Oneonta, N.Y., moves back to campus on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think it’s a little easier at a smaller university rather then a large university like University of Connecticut or North Carolina, they had a big issue,” said Madison’s father, Justin Wood. “I think at a smaller school they have a little more control rather than the really large universities.”

Juliana Gudaitis, also a freshman, was beaming with excitement as her father helped her unload a laundry basket and several large plastic containers and move them into her new dorm.

“I’m really excited we still get to go to actual classes,” said Gudaitis, of Winslow. “It’s not like I’m sitting in my dorm doing online classes the whole time. I’m really excited I get to go on campus and do my classes on campus.”

Jim Gudaitis said while the move-in looks very different from when he moved his older daughter to college in Florida four years ago, he’s happy Juliana will get to start her college experience on campus.

“I think the online classes are what you make of it,” he said. “My wife got a complete bachelor’s degree online and she was able to learn everything she needed to learn, so I’m not too worried.”

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