College students have returned to campus for the first time since the pandemic shattered their spring semester. But their college experiences are now very different from what they left behind.

Schools have limited access to dorms, enacted curfews, provided access to testing and moved courses online among other efforts to stop the spread in campus communities. But it is clear that not all students are taking COVID-19 seriously.

The University of Minnesota investigated a large party last month before the start of classes. The university’s safe reopening plan does not allow for large gatherings.

With all the chaos and uncertainty, students are wondering: Will they receive the same quality of education? Will they get sick? Will their grades suffer? The Star Tribune checked in with college students around Minnesota about how COVID-19 has affected their return to school.

University of Minnesota senior Meagan Quinn was filled with anxiety as the semester approached.

“I was really anxious, really just sort of not knowing what was to come, because nobody really knew what the actual plan was until a week before school started. Even then they were like, ‘Well, we're just going to have online the first week and then we'll figure it out,’” Quinn said.

Universities’ plans for the fall semester changed constantly and continue to shift, a major stressor for students who are forced to adjust.

University of St. Thomas freshman Josie Morss said she asks a lot of questions to stay on top of her classes.

“I ask questions and I email my professors all the time. I'm like, how do I do this? How do I do that? So like, I feel like I've been using this as a chance to learn,” Morss said.

Kai Sanchez, a St. Thomas sophomore, is struggling with the lack of structure.

“Freshman year was a curveball, starting college and then suddenly the pandemic hitting it. Adjusting to being a new student in college and then leaving college second semester, it was weird,” Sanchez said. “And now this year, starting online, it's kind of like, what am I doing?”

Quinn said that she would get more out of classes if they were in person.

“Online classes are kind of tough for me personally,” Quinn said. “I feel like I learn better in person. I can be more engaged. I don't think it's the same as it would be if it were in person.”

Remote classes make it easy to dismiss a reminder to attend online classes, said Sanchez.

“I have one in-person class and I actively make an effort to wake up, shower and get ready to go to school because it just gives me a little bit of joy actually being at school,” Sanchez said.

Metropolitan State University grad student Hamisha Alkamooneh said hybrid learning has been a challenge. One of her first classes of the semester was held in two separate rooms to space out the students, with the professor teleconferencing in from the room where she taught, said Alkamooneh.

“I know the classes that I have to do from home are much more difficult because I have kids and dogs and everything else at home,” Alkamooneh said. “It's hard to sit for three hours or four hours and just focus on a class, because you're not in the space to do it.”

Taylor Riess, a freshman who studies music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is worried about his hands-on major moving online.

“I'm still as worried about going online. It sucks for me as a music major. It's just going to be me recording 300 videos of me playing a day. I don't want it to happen, but it's bound to happen,” Riess said.

However, many students feel compelled to stay enrolled in classes, despite possible impacts on their grades.

“Since we're still in person for most of the classes, I feel like it is worth it, despite it being so much money,” Morss said.

Alkamooneh said: “I come from a very low income background. I don't feel like I have the option to stop going to school, like this is my only way out. So as difficult as it is, I don't feel like I have that much of a choice in it, and I'm just hoping something clicks together at some point.”

The students encourage their classmates to wear a mask and follow the university rules so the semester could continue.

“Wear a mask and actually practice social distancing, stop crowding bars and having parties,” Quinn said. “The sooner we get this under control, the sooner we can go back to life as it was. Think of the people who are actually being affected by this.”

Riess agreed.

“Wear a mask if you're not in your dorm, if you go outside of your dorm and you're not wearing a mask, then you're incorrect,” he said. “There is no other way around it.”

For more information on University COVID-19 response plans, check each college's website:
University of Minnesota
Metropolitan State University
University of St. Thomas
University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

In the next episode of Tomorrow Together, we’ll dig into the issues that are drawing young voters in Minnesota to the polls — subscribe to our YouTube channel to get notified about future videos and catch up on previous episodes.

Reporter Mark Vancleave contributed to this report.