Owls return to the nest

Campus comeback begins for a fall semester with new COVID restrictions in place

Inside the Lovett College commons July 29, Lovett President Chloe Oani and her fellow “Pod Squad” members were busy doing something they hadn’t been able to do in months: sit down for a meal together. Spread across several couches and tables — physically distanced and wearing masks when they weren’t eating burritos — the group of eight was taking a break between unloading storage containers and moving the boxes inside.

“Rice is the people, and the people are the community, and so I really missed everybody,” Oani said as her fellow Lovetteers joked and laughed over lunch. “It’s really nice to be back.”

Oani and her Pod Squad were among the first Rice students to return to the university, a group of volunteers picking up where they left off in March.

Many students were unable to return for their belongings when Rice closed its campus March 25 due to the coronavirus outbreak. To help them out, Oani and her friends quickly hatched a plan that “spread organically,” she said, to other residential colleges across campus.

Students still in Houston carefully packed up their fellow Owls’ rooms, organizing the contents into clearly marked boxes and closely tracked spreadsheets. Using money donated by college associates and other Rice community members, they rented portable storage containers to hold everything until students were able to return to campus.

Now, with Rice reopening its campus for the fall semester, the Pod Squads were back ahead of O-Week to ensure that the students coming back to campus would return with their stuff already squared away inside their rooms. And those Lovetteers moving off-campus?

Lovett College President Chloe Oani moves boxes of her fellow students' stuff back into Lovett College.

Lovett College President Chloe Oani moves boxes of her fellow students’ stuff back into Lovett College.

“I’m delivering their stuff in Vanessa, my van,” said Oani, a senior double-majoring in economics and sport management who plans to attend law school following her final year at Rice. “Wearing a mask, of course.”

‘I do appreciate Rice giving people the choice’

Later that evening, Oani joined her fellow college presidents in the Martel College commons for a hybrid meeting — most were physically present, while others joined via Zoom — that modeled the semester to come. When classes begin Aug. 24, they will be delivered through a combination of in-person and online formats.

“Even though there will still be a lot of online components, I think there are still people who needed to come back,” said Sid Richardson College President Nia Prince.

Prince, a senior majoring in social policy analysis and sociology, cited as examples students whose home environments aren’t conducive to online learning, those whose financial aid packages depend on secure on-campus housing and those who require in-person interactions for their studies.

“I do appreciate Rice giving people the choice and the opportunity to decide for themselves if they’re willing to engage in campus life in a physical manner,” Prince said.

Sid Richardson College President Nia Prince

Sid Richardson College President Nia Prince said she appreciated Rice giving the students the option to return to campus in person.

Her college is in a unique situation amid an already distinctive year: Sid Richardson has been designated as isolation housing for any students who test positive for COVID-19. Housing and Dining Director Mark Dittman and his team have already moved into the bottom floor of the tower, where they’re ready to assist any students who may need to temporarily call Sid Rich home.

In the meantime, Sid Richardson College students will be spread out across the 10 remaining residential colleges, though they’ll still have their own O-Week home base: Provisional Campus Facility (PCF) 4, a large tentlike structure close to the John and Anne Grove between Will Rice and Hanszen colleges, which is scheduled to be finished by Aug. 16.

PCF 4 is one of a quartet that will be completed — air-conditioned and equipped with audiovisual capabilities — by Aug. 21 and used for classes and other events this semester. Laid on concrete slabs, the massive silvery-white structures occupy much of the lawn next to Hanszen.

Across Alumni Drive in the newly built Kraft Hall, sociology professor Jenifer Bratter has been busy preparing for a dual-delivery semester while taking the reins at McMurtry College as its newest magister. Bratter served as a longtime head resident fellow at Duncan College and she brings years of campus life experience to the role.

The Lovett College Pod Squad on a long-awaited lunch break in the commons.

The Lovett College Pod Squad on a long-awaited lunch break in the commons.

“While I am very excited to engage with people through Zoom and other virtual means, I am very excited to actually see people face to face,” Bratter said.

“In terms of how it’s going to be safely done, I think there’s been tons put in place to ensure not only that students in the classroom will be safe — because they’ll be six feet apart, there’s going to be hand sanitizers, everyone’s going to be wearing masks ­— but there’s also a lot of investment in the remote technology to ensure that students who do participate remotely can participate fully.”

‘Closer to normal’

Like many other Rice faculty and staff working behind the scenes to ensure a safe return to campus, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman has had her hands full over the summer. She’s hosted virtual town halls for concerned parents and students and considered everything from how to conduct O-Week to how to conduct classes in the age of the coronavirus, and now she’s eager for her Owls to return to the nest — both virtually and physically.

“The spring caught everybody off guard,” she said. And while classes continued apace online after a swift pivot, Gorman said she knew it wasn’t the same for most students.

Rice’s immersive environment, she said, is as important to undergraduate life and coursework as having physical access to important facilities such as research laboratories and Fondren Library — which reopened exclusively to Rice faculty, students and staff Aug. 3.

Brown College President Ev Delafose in a mask sporting the Brown crest.

Brown College President Ev Delafose wore a mask sporting the Brown crest.

“And it’s not just the classes. When we talk about experiential learning, we mean that through a lot of different lenses,” Gorman said, whether it’s a chance encounter with a professor or fellow student you wouldn’t have otherwise met or the happy accident of stumbling across a new activity or club you wouldn’t have found off campus.

Back at Lovett, senior history major Victor Nguyen was taking a break between pushing box-laden carts into the commons. His fellow Lovetteers had built homemade ramps but in the Houston humidity it was still sweaty work. Nonetheless, Nguyen was in high spirits.

Moving back on campus to finish out his senior year was important after a junior year interrupted, Nguyen said, even if it means regular COVID-19 tests, dual-delivery classes and a highly unusual housing setup that has Rice’s residential colleges at 50% capacity.

“Being on campus again feels a little bit more like what we’re used to, even though we live in a new reality and everything’s different,” he said. “But it’s closer to normal, so that’s exactly what we were hoping for.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.