Thousands of LSU students started moving into campus housing on Friday. But along with the usual commotion of freshmen settling in and parents saying their goodbyes, undergraduates had to either show documents required by the school's COVID protocol or let a nurse swab their nose to test for the virus. 

A gravel parking lot on River Road served as a staging area, drawing long lines of cars transporting incoming students. When they reached a checkpoint, students had to show staff an email from LSU affirming that they followed the pandemic protocol the school developed just days beforehand.

According to LSU rules, they had three options.

They could upload a record of their vaccination if they got the shot. If not, they could show a negative COVID test result within the past five days. Or, to prove they have some natural immunity, they could show a positive test result from the last 90 days.

The vast majority of vehicles passed through without a hitch.

Students who couldn't meet one of those three criteria were directed to a nearby tent for a COVID test.

Catherine David, LSU's associate director of communications for residential life, said students who failed to provide proper documentation must get tested immediately.

And that meant putting them in limbo for a couple days or more until the results came through, she said.

“When we direct them over to the tent,” David explained, “that means they can’t move in today.”

That came as news to some students who got swabbed.

Elandra Marsalis, a nursing assistant at the testing tent, said a few students cheered after getting their nostrils plunged, thinking that would clear them to go to their dorms. 

The reality was more complicated. 

“We don’t know what students are supposed to do after they leave us,” Marsalis said. “We just get their names, swab them and let them know they’ll get results in 48 to 72 hours.”

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Apparently, staff got mixed messages. 

When The Advocate asked for clarification about the testing policy later in the day, David said she shared incorrect information earlier. Instead of turning away students until test results came through, she said the school immediately put them back with everyone else in the move-in line.

When asked if that policy risked coronavirus transmission by sending people back in the mix before ruling out whether they carried COVID, David said she would have to refer the question to LSU administrators or health experts.

A website explaining the university’s COVID entry procedure, meanwhile, failed to mention what students would need to do if they didn’t bring proper paperwork.

Staffers weren’t the only ones unclear about protocol. 

Mackenzie Hinerman, an interior design freshman set to move into East Laville Hall, looked confused as she left the testing site late afternoon Friday. She and her parents conjectured over where they could bide time until they got the diagnosis.

“I don’t know if I can move in today,” Hinerman said. “They told me I can’t get into my dorm, but I don’t know what to do next.”

Thankfully for Hinerman, she’s a Baton Rouge native with a home close enough to return to while awaiting her results. “I guess I’m supposed to come back if my results are negative,” she said.

School officials said that of the 1,800 students who checked in by late afternoon Friday, nine had to postpone their move-in plans. LSU expects 5,000 students to check-in on campus this weekend. 

Marsalis said she tested incoming students for COVID in the 2020-21 school year, and was impressed with how prepared they seem to be this go-round.

“They’re making our jobs easy,” she said. “Barely anyone has shown up to us, and we’ve seen hundreds of cars move through here. It shows that they’re getting vaccinated and doing what they have to to come back to school.”

Wesley Bourg, political science freshman, moved into North Hall on Friday, two days after he got immunized against coronavirus.

His mother, Kathleen Hotard, said she opposes vaccine mandates but advised her son to get the shot anyway to avoid the monthly tests LSU requires for unvaccinated students. “We know LSU is going to mandate the vaccine at some point, which I don’t believe in,” Hotard said. “I think it infringes on my son’s rights.”

Her son said he was more preoccupied with starting his first year of college than getting vaccinated. “I don’t care either way,” Bourg said. “As long as I can move in today.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Catherine David, who said she previously shared incorrect information about LSU’s testing policy.


Email Caroline Savoie at CSavoie@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter at @CarolineSavo.