Minnesota State University, Mankato’s typically bustling campus was rather quiet last week. Students crisscrossed the grounds while maintaining distance from their peers. Masked students sat alone gazing at their laptops inside the Centennial Student Union. During a microbiology laboratory, students clad in masks and lab coats peered through microscopes, separated from their classmates by Plexiglas barriers.

Meanwhile, University of Minnesota students will start the fall semester from behind their computer screens Tuesday. All classes will be taught online for the first two weeks, and students will not be able to move into Twin Cities campus dormitories until Sept. 15. Those who live on campus will initially have to abide by curfews and rules resembling a stay-at-home order.

Minnesota students and professors are returning to campus under varying restrictions and coming to grips with the reality that college life during the COVID-19 pandemic looks anything but normal. They are experiencing a mix of emotions, from excitement to anxiety, as they begin classes knowing an outbreak could cause their schools to suddenly close and shift fully online. Already, students say their experience feels different from past years — they are spending less time on campus and there are fewer opportunities to socialize.

“It’s a little bit more lonely, a little bit more isolated,” senior Stevan Colakovic said from behind his purple Minnesota State, Mankato mask as he worked inside a chemistry research lab.

Colakovic thinks a campus closure and online shift could happen “earlier than expected.” He said he has already seen some fellow students not wearing masks. “Some students are pretty disciplined, but I think a lot of them are not and they could do better.”

Positive COVID-19 cases among students are beginning to climb at some colleges; 128 Minnesota State, Mankato students had tested positive as of Wednesday and 97 Winona State University students had tested positive as of Aug. 30. Classes began at the two schools on Aug. 24.

Student infections at Winona State have mostly been linked to smaller group gatherings, President Scott Olson said during a virtual news conference Wednesday. Student senate President Clara Kuerschner said she is using social media and other means to encourage students to act safely.

“We want to be able to stay on campus. We don’t want to get sent home,” Kuerschner said.

State epidemiologist Cynthia Kenyon explained that the spike in cases is not surprising given that scores of students have returned to the community. She said she is hopeful school administrators and health officials can act quickly to slow it down.

Minnesota State, Mankato microbiology Prof. Lois Anderson hopes the laboratory sections she teaches will remain in person through the fall semester. The lecture portions of her class are online, and Anderson said she has not warmed to teaching in front of a computer screen. She misses the visual and verbal cues that students give when they do not understand a lesson, as well as the sense of classroom community.

Anderson said she has also had to accommodate about 20 students who tested positive for COVID-19, were exposed to someone who was infected or were undergoing testing. She has scheduled additional lab times for these students to make up their work.

“It’s a huge change for me to adjust to this new environment,” said Anderson, who has taught the class for about 30 years.

Will students follow rules?

Classes have also begun at Minnesota’s private colleges. Students at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul picked up care kits containing masks and thermometers on campus Monday.

At the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus, about 70% of fall classes are slated to be taught online and all courses will be conducted remotely after Thanksgiving.

Students who move into campus residence halls will be under the “dorm version of a stay-at-home order” for their first 10 days, U President Joan Gabel said. They are not supposed to visit other residence halls or off-campus businesses or residences during this span. Those who violate the rules could face disciplinary action, such as the termination of their campus housing contract.

Afterward, students living on campus will be asked to abide by a curfew for four weeks. The restrictions will not be lifted until late October. A U spokeswoman said there is no designated authority tasked with enforcement. Housing staff and students may report violations to the school.

“The realist in me is thinking, well … how much of the rules are 18-year-olds really going to follow?” said U freshman Robbie Wichterman, 18, who will soon move into Middlebrook Hall. “The college can make up a 15-step plan with so many different sub-steps … but this whole thing really hinges on how the students behave.”

Wichterman said he is entering his first semester of college with “really low expectations” and does not expect to meet many people under existing restrictions.

Traditional college activities will be held virtually to start the semester. U student groups are expected to meet remotely through at least Sept. 20. Fraternities and sororities plan to hold rush week events such as house tours and new member interviews over Zoom.

Senior sociology student Erin Falline, president of the U’s Panhellenic Council and member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, said the women in her chapter have maintained their sense of community through creative virtual get-togethers.

“People do show up and they have a really great time … having a little sense of normalcy even though it’s not quite normal to hop on a Zoom call and paint with people in your chapter,” she said.

Falline, who has asthma, said she is somewhat nervous about the fall semester. She hopes her fellow students take the pandemic seriously so they can avoid outbreaks and remain on campus.

“This is my last year of college and I want to be able to see my friends before it’s all over,” Falline said.