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The first wave of college students returning to their dorms aren’t finding the typical mobs of students and parents. What they found Friday were strict safety protocols and some heightened anxiety amid a global pandemic where virus infections are growing in dozens of states.

North Carolina State University staggered the return of its students over 10 days and welcomed the first 900 students to campus, where they were greeted Friday by physically distant volunteers donning masks and face shields.

The rite of passage was a well-organized, but low-key affair, as boxes were unloaded, luggage was wheeled and beds were hauled.

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“It’s just odd not seeing anybody. You expect it to be hustle and bustle and all that around, but there was nothing. It was pretty empty,” said Dominick DePaola, a freshman from Charlotte, N.C.

Across the country, students are jumping through additional hoops by getting tests, navigating travel quarantines and abiding by strict rules.

Elon University in North Carolina mailed testing kits to all 7,000 students ahead of their arrival in a few weeks. Maine’s Colby College will be testing students before they arrive and then three times a week for the first two weeks on campus. They’ll be tested twice a week after that until the semester ends.

The University of Rhode Island is scaling back campus housing to abide by physical distancing requirements, causing a scramble for some students.

N.C. State usually houses 10,000 students, but the university will have 6,700 on its Raleigh campus this fall, chancellor Randy Woodson said. And those students were arriving over an extended period instead of all at once over a single weekend as they normally would.

“Just like the rest of the world, we have to figure out how to carry on,” said Betsy Flanagan, who was sending her freshman son, Arch, off to college. “This virus isn’t going away and it’s going to be with us for quite a while, so we all have to figure out how to safely exist and that includes continuing to educate our future.”

In West Virginia, one university put out the welcome mat Friday for students and their families, only to temporarily pull it away.

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Over an eight-day stretch, students at West Virginia State University -- a small, historically Black college -- were given staggered, two-hour time slots to unload belongings into their residence halls, then were sent home until the start of the fall semester on Aug. 10.

“I don’t have anything to worry about,” said Jihad Shockley, a sophomore resident assistant from Columbus and a member of the Yellow Jackets’ men’s basketball team. “It’s like, if you get it, quarantine for two weeks [and] hope for the best. I guess I’m not really too scared about it.”

Across the U.S., it appears that the second surge of confirmed virus cases appears to be levelling off. But scientists warn that trend is driven by four big, hard-hit places – Arizona, California, Florida and Texas – and that cases are rising in more than two dozen other states.

Students appeared to be ready to accept the risk and move on.

Freshman Nicholas Cecil, of Hilliard, Ohio, missed his senior season of baseball and his high-school prom, called off owing to the virus. He’s ready to put that behind him at West Virginia State University, where he’s on the baseball team.

“Honestly, it’s a new chapter in my life,” Mr. Cecil said. “It’s meeting new people, getting out, and playing baseball at a high level. It’s kind of the first step to being an adult. You’re living more so on your own.”

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In North Carolina, students were happy to be on campus, even if it was a bit subdued, compared with the normal, frenetic move-in process.

“Because of corona, I didn’t really have too many expectations,” said Ann Grace Jacocks, an freshman from Fayetteville, N.C.

“A lot of classes are going to be online, so that’s not fun, but other than that, I’m ready to go,” said Arch Flanagan, a freshman.

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