WILLIAMSTOWN — One by one on Monday afternoon, vehicles rolled up on Stetson Road and stopped in an area lined with neon yellow parking cones.
Toni Perry pulled up with her sons and daughter, Essence Perry, a junior studying economics at Williams College. Essence was masked and ready to go, swiftly unloading a suitcase and other items destined for her dorm room into a designated area under a tent. Because of the coronavirus pandemic no parents or visitors are allowed into campus buildings to help with the move-in process, so Essence's things waited for a staffer to transport them to her residence hall. Essence, who's from Fitchburg, went around to different vehicle windows, hugging her two brothers and mother goodbye.
"I'm gonna miss her," the mother said, giving her daughter a doting look from the driver's side.
Monday marked the first day since mid-March that students were allowed come back to campus, and it was a return unlike any other in the college's 227-year history. The outdoor area adjacent to Cole Fieldhouse on campus currently resembles an airport terminal operation, and returning students must go through a carefully orchestrated campus check-in plan.
The college is set to welcome around 1,500 students this fall. Between 100 and 200 students will arrive each day over the next two weeks during staggered times. Monday's group including students working in residence halls and other leadership positions as well as international students. First-year students will begin arriving later this week.
All students returning this fall are required to check-in, complete free, on-site COVID-19 testing and self-quarantine until they receive two rounds of negative results while on campus.
As her family waved and drove off, Essence Perry proceeded through a sectioned off queue and walked up to a table where another greeter sat behind a framed sheet of plexiglass. After verifying herself with her ID, she was given a vial and some paper and directed to a testing station. Under the guidance of another staffer, Perry had to blow her nose to clear her nasal passage, then open the vial and take her own nasal swab.
It's less invasive than some of the first-generation COVID-19 tests that require an up-to-your-eyeballs type of nasal swab. Once this step was completed, she was given a red wristband to wear to verify she had been tested, and proceeded to the final stop to get housing papers, a set of campus-provided face coverings and other materials detailing campus life options.
The college student knows the health and safety rules and has gone over them with her family. Perry will also be working to keep fellow students safe, as she's serving as a Residential Life House Coordinator.
"I think it will be a little more complicated, but I'm excited that it will give people a good place to call home," she said.
Petros Markopoulos is also glad to be back on campus. He's just returned from his home country of Greece to continue his studies in computer science and mathematics.
"I had been very nervous because I was anxious along the way thinking something's going to go wrong," he said.
Markopoulos said he was please to see the strict safety procedures in place during his travels and on campus.
"Media coverage has the U.S. kind of chaotic with COVID, and I guess some parts of the U.S. are," he said. "But it was kind of calming to see that people were being careful, too."
He plans to relax, unpack and work on a coding project during his quarantine until he gets the clearance to move out and about campus more.
Asked how he thinks this fall semester will compare to the bumpy spring semester, Markopoulos said, "I think we're much more prepared."
He and Perry said they were pleased with the sheer amount of planning and detailed communications the college has sent out this summer, as is Town Manager Jason Hoch.
"It'll be great to have that activity back," Hoch said, "but the engagement will be a little bit different."
Hoch said the college has communicated to the town a "very thorough, responsible plan" for welcoming students and staff back and outlining protocols for caring for any student or personnel member testing positive. That said, he's also expecting to see the town's number of COVID-19 cases rise, albeit hopefully contained to the campus, as the town's earlier cluster of cases this spring was contained to Williamstown Commons.
He said he hopes the campus community can remain cognizant "that everybody's a little uncomfortable right now and that our usual enthusiasm in welcoming students back is tempered by concern and caution."