Ave Maria University students Trenton Phillips O'Neil and Jacinta Hogan observed the start of the fall semester at their small campus up-close.
Safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic was a main priority as the private Catholic school in eastern Collier County welcomed students back to campus in late August, the students said.
"We're all really thankful to be back here," Hogan said.
Both are student ambassadors for the university. Hogan said she helped ensure student orientation went smoothly while watching how the university performed health checks for returning students. That set up how school looks nearly a month into classes.
"I have done it in the past, so it's definitely different from last year's," Hogan said. "It was very thorough."
Did you know?: Track confirmed cases at SWFL schools and colleges
And: Collier schools launches COVID-19 dashboard reversing stance on sharing data
The university is working to prevent the spread of the virus while maintaining some campus normalcy after staggering student arrivals in its early weeks.
Since the semester's start on Aug. 24, five students on campus have tested positive for coronavirus. Of the five cases, only one is current.
No faculty members have tested positive, according to the university.
The town of Ave Maria, home to the university about 25 miles east of Naples, has had 76 positive coronavirus cases, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The university founded by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan has 1,074 students enrolled for classes. About 850 students are living on-campus in Ave Maria's dorms, according to the university.
Hogan, a senior studying business administration, said she was comfortable with how campus handled the transition back to learning.
Phillips O'Neil agreed.
"The transition from being here in the summer in a really small group to the way that we knew fall semester is coming and we knew everybody was coming back, the way they did it I thought was good," said Phillips O'Neil, a junior studying music.
Safety measures at Ave Maria
Kim King, vice president for student affairs, said most students are learning on campus this year with a small number of students in virtual learning because they could not make it back to campus. Some are international students, she said.
During the summer, AMU rolled out their health and safety plan to curb the spread of COVID-19 in preparation for students to return from several different states and countries.
The university's plan mirrors other universities and colleges across the country that are holding in-person classes and adjusting to a new normal.
Students were given one reusable mask at the start of the semester to be worn when social distancing is not possible; they were also encouraged to bring their own masks.
The university is following Collier County's mask mandate.
More: Collier Commission extends county's mask mandate until Oct. 22
Ave Maria University kept about 20% of their students at the school in the spring because many worried about traveling home, said Kevin Murphy, vice president of marketing and communication for the school.
Since then, safety measures have strengthened. Social distancing markers were added to floors, and signs were placed in buildings to remind students about guidelines.
In O'Bryan Performance Hall, where about 400 people filed in to see Vice President Mike Pence in March 2019, about 30 students now sit spaced out for class.
Classes normally in smaller rooms were bumped up to ones with more space to focus on distancing, King said.
Students are permitted to remove their masks at their assigned, distanced spots in classrooms, according to the health plan.
In dining facilities, tables that allow four students to sit for meals have "clean" signs that students place face down after they use a table to help cleaning staff identifying tables that need cleaning, King said.
Students are permitted to remove their masks at their table, but not in line for food, King said.
Cleaning is being done in general, high-traffic areas and in other parts of campus as needed to try to stop spread from a sick student, King said.
If a student becomes sick they are isolated for the required period on Saint Francis Xavier Hall's second and third floors with dorm-style rooms.
The school also organized a meal delivery system to drop food off outside the students' doors to avoid contact, King said.
The five reported cases at the school were isolated, King said.
"We have had no spread," King said. "Anyone who had it, came in with it."
More than 350 students, mostly athletes, were tested upon returning to campus. The tests were administered by trainers, King said.
Ave Maria is the only collegiate sports program playing this fall in Southwest Florida due to the pandemic.
The school's football team has its home opener Saturday. Fans will be allowed, but temperature checks and distanced seating will be observed.
More: Ave Maria sports teams return as only SWFL program playing amid COVID-1
There's a lot of responsibility on students to stay diligent about safety protocols at events and on-campus in general, King and Murphy said.
Students are being mindful of how staying safe and limiting risks can help protect everybody on the small-scale campus, Hogan and Phillips O'Neil said.
"There's a lot of sacrifices being made for the greater good," Hogan said. "There's adjustments."
But COVID-19 has not stopped campus events, clubs, or Mass, Phillips O'Neil said. Events are altered and most are outside.
"It's nice to see recurring events, but with a little bit of twist just concerning the risk and things like that so that everybody can still experience things, but in a safe way," Phillips O'Neil said.
A drive-in movie theater is in Ave Maria's future. King said they are waiting on a few parts before hosting moviegoers.
In April, Ave Maria University received federal COVID-19 relief through a Paycheck Protection Program loan, or a PPP loan, of about $2.7 million.
Ave Maria's loan is being used almost exclusively to offset payroll costs, Eugene Munin, vice president of finance and administration, said.
Florida PPP loan recipients: See the full searchable list of who received them
Through the CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Ave Maria University accepted $927,779.
The university has already dispersed about $800,000 for emergency housing grants to students. They are still distributing grants, Munin said.
Through the grants, Munin said, the school refunded students up to $1,500 for housing costs incurred from departing AMU in the spring due to the pandemic.
Whatever remains of the CARES Act funds after grants will be used for coronavirus-related costs, Munin said.
Like other universities, the school has incurred COVID-19 costs for cleaning, testing and strengthening virtual learning.
Financially, the school is stable due to no drop in enrollment this year, but the federal aid was still a big help to the school, Munin said.
"COVID was not catastrophic for us, but it did impact us," Munin said.
Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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