BEMIDJI -- Masked up and eager to begin the 2021-22 school year, hundreds of Bemidji State students moved back to campus on Thursday for a year that will look a bit more normal than the last.

Campus was already bustling at 9 a.m. on Aug. 19 with students and their families unpacking vehicles and trailers for move-in scheduled to last until 1 p.m.

Much like a pre-COVID year, the women’s basketball team assisted families with transporting their larger goods and furniture into Tamarack Hall while the baseball team assisted at Oak Hall.

“COVID has been super hard on the girls, and it’s good to see the kids on campus,” assistant women’s basketball coach Erica Gartner said while waiting to assist more families. “I think the college has done a great job of trying to get us back to normal as much as they can and just getting kids back on campus, having in-person classes. … That’ll just help with the overall feel of campus.”

Incoming Bemidji State freshmen, with help from their families, load their things into Tamarack Hall during move-in day, Aug. 19, 2021, on campus on BSU. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Incoming Bemidji State freshmen, with help from their families, load their things into Tamarack Hall during move-in day, Aug. 19, 2021, on campus on BSU. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Many around Gartner shared her sentiment during the move-in while comparing this year to years past.

With a 500-student cap last year in the dorms, along with spread out “drop and go” move-in options, campus was much quieter on the official move-in day of 2020. With about 910 students moving into the dorms this year, and a majority moving in on move-in day, campus was a fair bit livelier this time around.

Fourth-year biology major Alex Fitch, who was helping on Thursday, is an assistant residence hall director for the Tamarack and Oak dorms and recalls how quiet his floor was last year.

“It was just weird having so few people in these buildings,” Fitch said. “The first-year halls are normally loud and exciting, so to go from a normal year of a couple hundred people in our buildings to having eight students on a floor, back to this, is absolutely exhilarating.”

With a higher number of on-campus students, many freshmen are excited for opportunities to meet new people and have a well-rounded college experience that this weekend’s orientation will kick-start, even with the recent mask mandate put into place as a result of the rise in Delta variant cases in Beltrami County.

“I’m just looking forward to meeting new people and making lots of new friends,” Isabella Peters of Roseau said as she moved into Oak Hall. “I’m really glad that I’m able to have the closest-to-normal experience that I can. Obviously, there are still rules in place, but I’m grateful that it’s semi-back to normal.”

Bemidji State residential assistant Grayson Hartshorn, left, and Luther Wilmot, a peer academic advisor, hand out orientation information to incoming BSU freshman during move-in day, Aug. 19, 2021, on campus at BSU. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State residential assistant Grayson Hartshorn, left, and Luther Wilmot, a peer academic advisor, hand out orientation information to incoming BSU freshman during move-in day, Aug. 19, 2021, on campus at BSU. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Some students are hoping the spread of the Delta variant slows down to the point where masks are no longer required in indoor spaces on campus.

“I think it’s going to be a good year, but I hope the COVID variant and everything slows down so we don’t have to wear masks,” said Luke Welch of Carver while moving into Tamarack. “It’s kind of hot in Tamarack and other areas, so it’d be better without a mask.”

In addition to the mask mandate, Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, announced new guidelines on Wednesday that will require certain students to provide a vaccine attestation -- a declaration that someone is fully vaccinated -- or be subject to weekly COVID testing.

Students affected by this requirement will include:

  • Students who live in university-owned or managed residences

  • Students who participate in intercollegiate athletics that already follow NCAA-announced vaccine and testing protocols

  • Student interns as required or directed by their clinical or internship sites

“I want to be clear that this is not a vaccination requirement but, rather, a reporting requirement,” BSU and Northwest Technical College President Faith Hensrud said in a release to students on Aug. 18. It will go into effect no later than Monday, Oct. 4, for all 37 colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system, the release said.

RELATED: Bemidji State, Northwest Tech President Faith Hensrud announces plans to retire

The requirement expands on an order from Gov. Tim Walz, who announced a COVID-19 proof of vaccine and testing policy for state employees, including student workers, that goes into effect Wednesday, Sept. 8.

“We certainly are taking precautions and the mask mandate is very much going to help with that,” Hensrud said. “We’re going to weigh what the county transmission is on a regular basis.”

Hensrud’s cabinet members will work with elected student leaders and other entities to revise the existing protocols once classes start. They will also collaborate with the Minnesota Department of Health to create accessible COVID-19 testing sites on or close to campus.

Incoming Bemidji State freshmen unload their vehicles on move-in day, Aug. 19, 2021, near BSU’s Tamarack Hall. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Incoming Bemidji State freshmen unload their vehicles on move-in day, Aug. 19, 2021, near BSU’s Tamarack Hall. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Beltrami County Public Health is hosting several free vaccine clinics for BSU and NTC students and employees in the Crying Wolf Conference Room of the Hobson Memorial Union at BSU. For more information, visit www.bemidjistate.edu.

With these precautions in place, orientation weekend will commence with full occupancy, a full list of events and cautious optimism that this year will be a safe return to normalcy for students.

“(The parents and students) are just enthusiastic about being able to be here in-person, on-campus in the residence halls, so I’m feeling the excitement and have it as well,” Hensrud said. “I’m very happy about this day.”

Orientation events include the annual founder’s walk and convocation, a procession that starts at Bangsberg Hall and ends at the BSU Gymnasium. A candle-lighting ceremony then takes place as a way to symbolize a student’s induction into academic life at BSU.

Also included are several speaking panels, wellness events, recreation and social hours taking place through the first week of classes, which start Monday, Aug. 23, for BSU and NTC.