Admissions

Will Returning Students Follow The COVID-19 Rules?

Jules A./Unsplash

As of this writing, it looks like around 60 percent of the colleges that have announced their plans for Fall 2020 are planning on in-person classes. Those planning a so-called "hybrid" model, where some in-person classes will be held and others will be online, come in at 23 percent. Only eight percent are planning on exclusively online classes. A few (2.5 percent) have yet to decide and six percent are still in the process of choosing which option to pursue.


Of course, these numbers could change as we get closer to August. The current surge in infections across the country is causing increased anxiety among administrators, faculty, students and parents. Best-laid plans could go south quickly if the infection rate continues to climb. For schools creating effective protocols, it's like juggling bowling balls and chainsaws while the chainsaws are running.

Some Schools Maintain Strict Guidelines

Putting aside the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic for a moment, let's consider what students will face when they return to campus: a massive set of rules and regulations. Most of us know what the main rules will involve — masks, social-distancing, hand washing, sanitizing surfaces, limited-sized gatherings, etc. Some schools, however, have specialized, ultra-detailed directives that amplify the basics into obsessiveness. For example, here are Tufts University's instructions regarding masks:

Use and Care of Face Coverings

PUTTING ON THE FACE COVERING/DISPOSABLE MASK:

• Wash hands or use hand sanitizer prior to handling the face covering/disposable mask.

• Ensure the face covering/disposable mask fits over the nose and under the chin.

• Situate the face covering/disposable mask properly with nose wire snug against the nose (where applicable).

• Tie straps behind the head and neck or loop around the ears.

• Throughout the process: Avoid touching the front of the face covering/disposable mask.

TAKING OFF THE FACE COVERING/DISPOSABLE MASK:

• Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth when removing the face covering/disposable mask.

• When taking off the face covering/disposable mask, loop your finger into the strap and pull the strap away from the ear, or untie the straps.

• Wash hands immediately after removing.

CARE, STORAGE, AND LAUNDERING:

• Keep face coverings/disposable mask stored in a paper bag when not in use.

• Cloth face coverings may not be used more than one day at a time and must be washed after use.

• Cloth face coverings should be properly laundered with regular clothing detergent before first use and after each shift.

• Cloth face coverings should be replaced immediately if soiled, damaged (e.g. ripped, punctured), or visibly contaminated.

• Disposable masks must not be used for more than one day and should be placed in the trash after your shift or if it is soiled, damaged (e.g., stretched ear loops, torn, or punctured material), or visibly contaminated.

Honestly, do we think all students on campus will follow these exhaustive mandates? I don't. In a previous article, I referred to "the human nature of college students." We're already seeing the consequences of this nature at other schools, even before fall classes have started:

At least 80 students living in a dozen fraternity houses just north of the University of Washington campus have reported testing positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, with hundreds of results pending …

… Experts say the outbreak, along with cases among student athletes, is a troubling sign of what may be in store if colleges reopen in the fall. University of Washington leadership said this week they hope to reopen in-person, with larger classes held virtually, but that plans could change based on the virus's spread.

Daniel Leifer, a pediatrician studying dermatology at UW, said he saw more than a dozen parties when walking by Greek Row in recent months. Students stood close together, and masks were nowhere to be seen, he said … "I don't hold it against college students that they're partying with each other and getting to know each other, because that's everyone's college experience. It just doesn't make for a safe campus," Leifer said. "A lot of college reopening plans are premised on students wearing masks and social distancing. This crystallized for me that that doesn't seem very realistic." …

Dr. Leifer is justified in his concerns. Take this student opinion into account:

When asked if he could imagine a college party where everyone is wearing masks, Jacques du Passage, a sophomore at Louisiana State University, laughs.

"No. I don't think they would do that," he says. "I think [students] would just have the party and then face the repercussions."

That's exactly what Apramay Mishra, student body president at the University of Kansas, is worried about when it comes to reopening campus amid the pandemic. "Right now it's kind of slipped from most people's minds," he says. Students "don't really think it's a big deal."

Therein lies the problem: Students don't think the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications, for themselves and others, is a big deal. One of the reasons they may not be that concerned is because of the relatively low impact the virus has had on young people. There have been numerous stories about "asymptomatic" college students who are infected but show no signs or consequences of infection.

That, along with well publicized single-digit mortality rates for their demographic can foster an attitude of invincibility. Proof of that comes from the so-called "infection party," where students win cash prizes for being the first to catch COVID-19:

Some students in Alabama are throwing Covid-19 parties, a disturbing competition where people who have coronavirus attend and the first person to get infected receives a payout, local officials said. The parties are being held in Tuscaloosa, and infected people are urged to attend so others can intentionally contract the virus, City Council member Sonya McKinstry told CNN. She said she heard about the trend from fire officials. "We thought that was kind of a rumor at first. We did some research, not only do the doctors' offices confirm it, but the state confirmed they also had the same information," she said

Risks Are High for Colleges

The risks of student apathy, carelessness, laziness or even outright rebellion regarding COVID-19 safety protocols for colleges are high. A surge of infections after the Fall 2020 return to campus could easily demand a return to the mid-March extremes of shutdowns and 100 percent online classes. The ensuing chaos and lost revenue, not to mention potential faculty, student and parental "We told you so!" lawsuits could push many colleges to the brink, financially.

My answer in response to this article's query is, "Many will — for a while — but those who won't will endanger everyone else." Take another look at the Tufts mask protocol cited above and ask yourself if you would be able to follow that stringent regimen for an entire year of college (at least this year). That's why I conditionally note "for a while" regarding those who first agree to obey. It won't take many "invincibles" to endanger an entire campus.

With little more than a month to go before students return to campus, colleges and families are preparing to face the challenges that will inevitably occur. Murphy's Law comes to mind: If something can go wrong, it will. Herding cats rings a bell, too: a futile attempt to control or organize a class of entities which are inherently uncontrollable.

I'm not trying to project negative vibes across higher education for the coming academic year. However, I do know college students. I was one once, and I parented two of them. Their nature can be impulsive and mercurial. The last thing colleges want to do is create a police-state campus to enforce compliance. Of course, blatant violators will be dismissed for gross negligence that endangers others, but the consensus hope is for rule-abiding student bodies. Stay tuned.

Share Your Thoughts

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Check out our forum to contribute to the conversation!