ST. CATHARINES, Ont. — As the head resident at Brock University's campus housing, Cassandra Schultz said the hardest part of her job was sending more than 2,000 students home early in March due to COVID-19.
Now that students are returning to the St. Catharines, Ont., university's residence for the new school year, her goal is to ensure they can stay for the full year.
"They just unpacked their last boxes into their residence room," said Schultz, who is in her fifth year at Brock, and also lives on residence with other staff.
"I would hate for them to have to pack up in two weeks because someone decided wearing masks wasn't cool and now we have an outbreak."
Roughly 400 students moved into on-campus housing at Brock University earlier this week — just a fraction of the school's capacity of 2,400. The campus looked like a ghost town, with empty hallways and only handfuls of students walking around.
Brock University opted to do most of its classes and orientation week online, meaning there was no reason to be on campus for what is usually the busiest, and most social week of the year.
Schultz said residence staff are going to ease into physical distancing enforcement and give students some leeway as they get used to living on their own for the first time amid a global pandemic.
"Our dons are working really hard to still give them the experience they signed up for," said Schultz. "But this is a choice they made to come to campus, so by making that choice they also agreed to social distancing."
The university is asking residents to have conversations with each other about their comfort levels around social distancing, and isn't allowing visitors between rooms to reduce the risk of the novel coronavirus spreading. Students also have to sign in every time they enter a campus building.
But on the first week of school, staff still had to educate students on how to safely interact. On one campus courtyard, Schultz and another staff member separated roughly 10 students from different rooms who were sitting in close quarters at a table, and suggested using green spaces where physical distancing circles had been painted.
Some of the students who still opted to live in residences said they wanted to experience some sort of campus life during their first year of university, despite the fact that it would be quieter than usual.
Everett Craven, a first-year student from Woodstock, Ont., is one of them.
"I was expecting people to be yelling and screaming around me... but it's just the funniest thing because you look around and there's no one here," said Craven, who said he accepted that he needs to do his part to curb the spread of COVID-19.
"But it's quieter than I was expecting definitely."
He said it was a difficult decision to live in residence because he knew that orientation and classes were all going to happen online, but he was happy to move out of his parents' house.
Nash Ramsay, another first-year student who was recruited by the university's rugby team, said he was hoping that varsity sports could return this month, although they're still cancelled.
"It makes me wonder what it would be like if COVID wasn't going on, but aside from that it's great," said Ramsay.
He lives with two other roommates and said he isn't too worried about having conversations around how the three of them will social distance outside of their apartment.
Brock University President Gervin Fearon said there will be consequences from both the university and from law enforcement if students willingly disregard physical distancing rules and gather at large parties.
"We have a very clear message that's gone out to all of our students about our expectations given COVID-19, about our expectations about adhering to protocols here on campus and adhering to public health directives," said Fearon.
"If by some chance individuals or a group of individuals do not respect the university protocols whether on or off campus... there are ramifications."
There have already been issues around partying in other university towns, including in Kingston, Ont., where police have said crowds of returning Queen's University students are simply too large to properly enforce social distancing.
Back in St. Catharines, Schultz said the emphasis will be on education, as many students simply aren't aware that gathering at a courtyard in close proximity isn't allowed. But beyond sending warnings, she said it's important to make their experience as enjoyable as possible.
"We're still trying to figure out how we can make (events) happen rather than know we can't make them happen. It just might look different," said Schultz.
"We're looking for those bits of normalcy where we can."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2020.
Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press