KENNESAW — Hundreds of fledgling Owls began their move-in process at Kennesaw State University’s main campus this week, and, as expected, students and parents alike said they were nervous but excited for college life.

Move-in day at Kennesaw campus

Resident assistants darted to and fro Thursday morning, offering KSU merchandise and room decorations to some students and directions to others with family members who looked particularly lost.

KSU officials said more than 4,200 students were expected to move in from Thursday to Saturday on the university’s two campuses, and some, including athletes, Greek life and the marching band, moved in early. The Kennesaw campus has 3,693 beds, and Marietta has 1,712.

Ryan McClellan, an incoming freshman and cybersecurity major, had help from his whole family, who carried pillows and wheeled around a large, neon green bin that fit perfectly through the residence hall doors.

As they prepared to find his room, McClellan told the MDJ he was excited to get out on his own and meet new people. He said he chose KSU because he’d been impressed by its growing prestige and the fact that the school itself “is getting bigger and bigger every year.”

Keith McClellan, Ryan’s dad, said he’s the first of two children to leave the house, a moment he called “bittersweet.”

Likewise, Solomon and Melissa Dent of Warner Robbins, parents of incoming freshman Samiya Dent, said they had mixed emotions. Samiya is their only child.

“I am feeling very stressed, because that’s my only baby, and I worry about her. She’s never been away, away. For two days, she’d go away and come back, but you know, no matter how old she gets, I was trying to explain to her, she’ll always be my baby,” Melissa Dent said, as her daughter ran ahead. “She’s running away,” added her mother with a smile.

Plus, Melissa Dent joked, with her husband’s helper off to college, “Now, who is he going to call?”

For his part, Solomon Dent, a school counselor, said he recognized he had to heed the same advice that he gives to parents at his school: “You’ve gotta let your kids go.”

As her parents helped her unpack in her two-bed, one-bath room, Samiya Dent said she was excited to “see where life takes me from here.”

“And I’m sad that I have to write essays,” she joked.

But she also said she was nervous to live two hours from her family, whom she could easily ask for advice or come to with questions or concerns. Still, when asked about making the two-hour drive home to visit for weekends, she replied, “I don’t know about all that,” to her family’s laughter.

Among the students, concern over COVID-19 and KSU’s mask policy was mixed. The university has stopped short of mandating masks, but strongly encourages them, according to school officials. Signs asking patrons to wear masks hang on doors to buildings around campus.

Though he wasn’t wearing one while he carried his belongings to his dorm, Ryan McClellan said he’d likely mask up while in classes or other group settings indoors. He said he’d been vaccinated, as had his family, but he added he’d hope that if virus cases begin to spread widely on campus, the university would institute a mask mandate.

Masks were mandated at his high school in Johns Creek, McClellan said, and there had been little problem with COVID-19 cases last school year.

Samiya Dent wore a mask during move in, as did her parents.

She said she would prefer a mask mandate at least for classes, adding that she knows face coverings would likely be few and far between at college parties that are bound to take place.

Either way, she said she hoped that “everyone tries to take care of themselves and just be mindful that other people want to stay healthy and actually enjoy their years, no matter what year they are in.”

Ryan Rodgers, also an incoming freshman and marketing major, said though he chose to wear a mask, the university’s optional policy didn’t bother him.

“I really don’t mind. Just take care of yourself,” he said.

KSU policy and professor concern

KSU’s mask policy and rules for other COVID-19 prevention measures are based on guidance from the University System of Georgia and public health officials, according to KSU spokesperson Tammy DeMel.

Guidance on the university’s website says everyone, regardless of vaccination status, is “encouraged to wear a face covering while inside campus facilities.” Those who are unvaccinated “are also strongly encouraged to continue to socially distance while inside campus facilities.”

The university also “strongly encourages” vaccination, says testing will continue to be provided and disposable face coverings will be available in each building on both campuses. In-person events and domestic travel will again be allowed in the fall semester.

USG says those who are fully vaccinated can “resume campus classes and other activities without physically distancing.” Unvaccinated people, meanwhile, are “strongly encouraged” to continue socially distancing “when possible.”

But as COVID-19 cases have continued to climb in Cobb County, members of KSU’s faculty have expressed their concern to the MDJ over the university’s policies.

Likewise, the United Campus Workers of Georgia, a union for higher education employees, has called for Georgia institutions to implement either a vaccine mandate or weekly virus testing; regular reporting of vaccination rates among students and staff; testing of wastewater throughout the USG; and accommodations for employees and students at “elevated risk” from COVID-19, as well as those who share a household with someone who is high risk.

Tim Hedeen, professor of conflict management in his 20th year at the university, said he shares many of those opinions.

Hedeen said he is “troubled by KSU’s acceptance of USG’s insistence that we not require masks,” and he added he’s even concerned the university doesn’t require COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone.

“I find it remarkably irresponsible to not require masks and to not maintain distance,” he said, noting that Cobb County remains an area of “high community transmission,” according to public health data. “The most prudent course of action in the midst of a pandemic surge would be as many health-preserving measures as possible, and those would include required vaccination, required masking and required distancing, not optional on any front. And right now, we’re 0-for-3.”

Hedeen called the lack of requirements a “perfect petri dish in which to share what’s now a more virulent, transmissible virus.”

“If I were a betting man, I can’t help but guess we’re going to have ... outbreaks on college campuses and we’ll head back to remote learning,” he said. “The worst thing for both the (K-12) schools and the universities is we fought so hard, we insisted so much, we wanted to have students in classrooms, and I do. But we can’t do it if we’re going to make masks optional, if we’re going to make distancing impossible and, frankly, if we’re going to make vaccinations optional.”

Hedeen also pointed out that the professors, dining facility staff, janitors, bus drivers and others at risk of exposure to many unvaccinated and unmasked staff and students per day often go home to families and children sometimes too young to be vaccinated.

DeMel did not respond to specific questions and reports of concern from faculty, instead directing the MDJ back to its online guidance and a statement from KSU Interim President Kaithy Schwaig.

“With the start of the fall semester quickly approaching, recent data affirms that we must remain diligent in our efforts to combat the coronavirus through vaccination,” the statement reads, in part. “We strongly encourage those who have not received the vaccine to take the opportunity to become vaccinated against COVID-19. ... This is a critically important step, as public health officials are reporting that those most negatively affected by the virus are the unvaccinated, and that the vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 and other strains like the delta variant.”

In its guidance for higher education institutions, the CDC stops short of saying masks should universally be worn, as it recommends in K-12 schools. It does, however, say that, at institutions where not everyone is fully vaccinated, “decision making to protect the people who are not fully vaccinated,” is required.

“Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” the CDC website says. “Mask use is recommended (indoors) for people who are not fully vaccinated including children.”

While the USG says its institutions will continue to “ensure vaccine availability to faculty, staff, and students,” it adds in guidance to its schools that “institutions are not responsible for assessing current Covid-19 vaccination rates for their institution.”

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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