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Students Are Moving Onto Campus — Can Colleges Pull It Off Without A COVID Disaster?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Students across the country are heading back to college for fall classes. But with the delta variant raging and with only a quarter of campuses requiring vaccinations, there are questions about how they can pull this off. This week, students are moving into the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello, folks. Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What time's our appointment?

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Students and their families are streaming into the Devaney Sports Center, the central hub of move-in week here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And then in this packet, you have your room key and your mailbox key. And then your next stop is you're going to just go find someone in a blue shirt, and they'll go ahead and get you started with COVID testing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK. Thank you.

NADWORNY: Before students can bring their stuff to their rooms, they've got to take a saliva test.

PROMISE LLOYD: There's usually a line that you have to...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Oh, I see it.

LLOYD: ...Spit to.

NADWORNY: Promise Lloyd, a sophomore from Omaha, is here at check-in with her mom and her younger brother, Jaylen.

LLOYD: So I have to take the straw.

NADWORNY: The saliva test isn't new to her. She was on campus last year and got good at spitting into the tube.

LLOYD: I always do extra just in case.

NADWORNY: The university has steered clear of a mandate and made it voluntary for students to report their vaccination status. Promise Lloyd was quick to upload her CDC card when she heard doing so meant she had the possibility of winning something.

LLOYD: They were saying they were giving, like, Apple Watches and stuff. And I could use a updated Apple Watch.

NADWORNY: The university is hoping those incentives are enough. Students who don't upload their CDC card will be required to take weekly COVID tests.

AMY GOODBURN: It's really critical to having an in-person experience to have a high level of vaccination.

NADWORNY: Amy Goodburn works in the university's administration and is on the COVID task force. She feels confident in the school's protocol. Last year, the school was open, with dorms at full capacity.

GOODBURN: It's a little bit of deja vu, but it's also, I feel, a lot more optimism and excitement, whereas last fall, it was pretty much dread in the pit of my stomach every day (laughter). Like, oh, what's going to happen here?

NADWORNY: They didn't see COVID spread in the classroom then. But this year, classes are back at full capacity. Masks are not required for most classes, and students and professors won't know who is and who is not vaccinated. Those conditions have some public health experts worried.

DAVID PALTIEL: Delta is clearly a much more virulent strain.

NADWORNY: David Paltiel studies public health at Yale University.

PALTIEL: We need to be preparing to expect a greater frequency and magnitude of outbreaks than we did last year.

NADWORNY: Across the country, we've seen campus mask mandates return at places like the University of Kentucky and the University of Colorado Boulder. Last week, the University of Texas, San Antonio announced they'll start the first three weeks of the semester online. And there's some anxiety on this campus, too.

MARIE HUEY: Walking around here, there's not many people with masks, and that's pretty scary for me.

NADWORNY: Maria Huey is here to move her daughter Ariana into campus for the first time. She's a sophomore, but did college from home in San Antonio last year. Ariana is vaccinated, but mom is still a bit wary.

HUEY: Back home, everybody wears a mask still. And here, I was like, oh, no. So yeah, we've had to be even more careful.

NADWORNY: The university hasn't released the data on how many students on campus are vaccinated, so it's unclear just how careful this campus community will need to be. But Promise Lloyd is hoping the vaccine and the testing will mean this year she'll be able to have a social life and football.

LLOYD: I didn't go to any games last year at all. Like, not having that, it just kind of killed my vibe. Like, where's all the spirit?

NADWORNY: She's planning to hit the campus store later. She's got to stock up on new Huskers gear ahead of game day. But first, she's got to finish move-in.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Lincoln, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.