Unprecedented move-in process puts Rice to the test

Hundreds of Owls come home to roost, kicking off an O-Week like no other

How do you move over 600 students onto campus as safely as possible during a pandemic? For one, you make face masks mandatory. And you get started early.

This year’s O-Week, already like none other in Rice University’s history, began not on Sunday with the traditional all-day move-in, but on a Saturday at 8 a.m. And each new student’s move-in began not at a residential college, but at the football field-sized Waltrip Indoor Training Center on the far west end of campus.

Inside the big air-conditioned bubble, every new and returning student underwent rapid testing for COVID-19 before moving bags or boxes into their dorm rooms. Although hundreds of tests were performed over two days in order to ensure a healthy student population, the lines went surprisingly quickly.

“We have an entire infection control package here,” said Jerusha Kasch, Rice’s director of institutional crisis management, who was overseeing the operation starting early Saturday morning. “You can see the flow works exceptionally well.”

With a background in public health, disease management and infection control emergency response, Kasch was as ready as anyone could be to take on the logistics of reopening Rice to students. Her core team of nearly 60 people worked in synchronicity, checking in students and moving them along from testing stations to a giant waiting area to, finally, the desk where they learned their test results.

“And that core team has worked unbelievable hours over the last three weeks to pull this off,” Kasch said. “I’m just the facilitator for a team of great people who get this work done — and I think you’re seeing the results of that right here.”

Students line up for rapid COVID testing inside the Waltrip Indoor Training Center. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Students line up for rapid COVID testing inside the Waltrip Indoor Training Center. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

‘Rice knows exactly what they’re doing’

Sid Richardson College freshman Ella McBee was one of the first students to benefit from all that work. McBee, who had driven from Kentucky with her parents, arrived by 8 a.m. and was quickly cleared and moving into her new semipermanent home in McMurtry College.

Along with Duncan and Martel, McMurtry is one of three college Sidizens will be living in this semester while Sid Rich itself serves as isolation housing for students who test positive for COVID-19. Groups of Sidizens were stationed at all three colleges to welcome the new freshmen, waving hand-painted signs that read: “We’ve been waiting for you all summer and we’re so glad you’re finally here.”

“I can’t imagine all the logistics that have gone into making all of this work,” McBee said. “But it became very clear to me today that Rice knows exactly what they’re doing, and they really do have our best interests at heart.”

An only child who fell in love with Rice’s immersive campus environment when she visited during her junior year of high school, McBee worried she’d be bored and miss the company of her peers if she stayed home and took classes only online her first semester.

“I’ll be studying biochem and cell biology, hopefully on a pre-med track,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a really long time.”

Jones College students greet a freshman arriving after clearing COVID testing. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Jones College students greet a freshman arriving after clearing COVID testing. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Graduate architecture student Kip Langat was also eager to get tested and move into his new apartment just off campus. An international student from the highlands of Kenya, Langat had a raft of luggage waiting at the door to the Waltrip bubble and was in a hurry to move in before Houston’s heat advisory kicked in for the day.

“I can only imagine the amount of energy used to make this place as cool as it is,” he said with an architect’s appreciation.

Like many students, Langat must take certain classes in person to earn his degree.

“I think all the history classes are going to be virtual,” he said. “It’s the studio classes which really require you to be in the studio, in person.”

Nearby, Baker College freshman Iasha Williams was also waiting for her results before she could rejoin her family, who’d driven from Kansas City to take their oldest daughter to the college of her dreams.

“Coming on campus really was just a very personal decision that took a long time to make,” said Williams, a psychology major who needed a concrete change between high school and college — even though she said her mother had offered to redecorate her bedroom at home to accommodate her new college student needs.

“I felt like I needed something different and I knew that I was going to be able to restrain myself and take all the precautions to keep myself safe and everyone else,” Williams said.

Students take a break to unmask and eat lunch outside North Servery. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Students take a break to unmask and eat lunch outside North Servery. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

‘It’s just really uplifting out here’

Soon, Williams was saying her goodbyes to her parents outside Baker College, where a raucous welcoming committee was waving homemade signs and yelling out cheers through colorful face masks.

“I love the closeness and all of the opportunities that are provided here for her,” said Char Morrison, her mother. “I’m really proud of her. She’s just been working her butt off for years, and now here she is, you know, at one of her top schools. It’s amazing.”

Unlike in past years, when parents have been able to move their children into their new rooms, explore campus and enjoy a final meal together before leaving, this year’s COVID-19 restrictions meant parents had far less time to say their goodbyes. After cars were unloaded and students checked in at their new colleges, parents had to leave the campus quickly to keep the physically distanced move-ins flowing all day long.

“Of course, everyone wants to be able to come in the dorm and be able to help them set up, but we know that this is for the best so we appreciate that,” said Ava Sheffield, who was dropping off her son Cameron at Lovett College.

“The school has done an amazing job,” Marcus Sheffield, her husband, chimed in. “No one has done what they’ve done. So as parents, of course there’s a little angst — but we feel the school has done as much as possible to make this a safe and nurturing environment for him.”

Cameron, who was enthusiastic about his first day on campus, said he’d chosen Rice in part because of the instantly welcoming community he discovered when he visited as a basketball recruit. In spite of physical distancing measures, he said the open-armed exuberance of move-in proved he made the right choice.

“Everybody out here is just cheering you on, just clapping and smiling,” Sheffield said. “It’s just really uplifting out here.”


‘It feels like I’m finally home’

Tears were shed, too, of course. It wouldn’t be move-in without them.

Over at Wiess College, freshman Angela Torres was saying goodbye to her parents, Pilar and Daniel, after a long drive from Corpus Christi.

The entire Torres family was present when Angela opened her Rice acceptance email — an emotional celebration captured on video and shared widely on the internet in March — and here they were once again to witness the culmination of that joyful news.

“Rice is awesome,” said mom, Pilar. “We’re so happy that she’s here.”

As they were in in their acceptance video, the Torres family was once again decked out head to toe in Rice gear. It was just one way in which dad Daniel said he was showing his pride.

“I can’t explain it, but I think my tears do,” he said.

And even as one family headed back to South Texas, Angela knew she was joining another.

“It feels like I’m finally home — just the place that I’ve longed to be for so long — and with people all around me that I know are gonna become my family,” she said.

Torres was grateful to Rice, too, for allowing her the opportunity to meet that new family face to face her freshman year.

“I think Rice is handling the whole situation very well,” she said. “They’re very cautious with all the requirements and I’m really thankful that they were able to actually get us in person, no matter the distance. You still feel the love from people six feet apart.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

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