When asked if he could imagine a college party where everyone wears masks, Jacques du Passage, a second-year student at Louisiana State University, laughs.
“No. I don’t think they would do that,” he says. “I think [students] would just party and then deal with the repercussions. “
This is exactly what worries Apramay Mishra, president of the student body of the University of Kansas, when it comes to reopening the campus in the middle of the pandemic. “Right now, it’s kind of forgotten in most people’s minds,” he says. Students “don’t really think it’s a big problem.”
In the United States, cases of coronavirus are increasing among youth. The spread of the virus is linked to college-related events such as fraternity celebrations, while drinking off campus bars and athletic practices. For colleges that plan to bring together thousands of students in the fall, student dispersal is a real concern. And the stakes are high: in the event of an epidemic, campuses could be closed again, dispersing students and disrupting academics and college finance once again.
To prevent this from happening, schools have created solid guidelines – but these plans are based on one major joker: students who follow the rules.
“This is the conversation everyone is having right now,” says Anna Song, who studies young adult decision-making at the University of California at Merced. Many students still have developing brains, so it’s not that they aren’t informed or don’t understand the risks – is that they are wired differently. “They are very aware of the reward, especially in the context of their peers,” she explains. Spending time with friends is a pretty incredible reward, given that many students have been isolated for months.
“Peer culture is not easy to change”
Changing campus culture and student behavior isn’t just about rewards. Song discovered that you can influence behavior if you find the right message. She is studying smoking habits and has found that students who believe that smoking will harm the health of their friends are much less likely to start smoking themselves. The challenge for colleges is to determine what messages will inspire students to adhere to the guidelines. Song isn’t convinced that protecting teachers is enough – she says administrators may need to focus on family members or friends who are vulnerable.
Other experts are less optimistic that student behavior may change. “The culture of peers is truly sustainable. It’s not easy to change, ”says Kristen Renn, associate dean at Michigan State University. “We didn’t do it with alcohol. We didn’t do it with sexual behavior. We didn’t do it with all kinds of things.”
Renn is most concerned with moments outside of class: brushing your teeth, running into friends, having dinner. And Song worries too.
“I vacillate back and forth, honestly. Day by day, ”she says. “I am optimistic, but there are real serious challenges. And we cannot be naive that these challenges are not there. Are we asking them to do something that is almost impossible?”
The first lines
At the University of Miami, Pat Whitely, vice-president of student affairs, is responsible for figuring out how to reopen dorms, how to orient new students, and how to make sure everyone follows the rules. It was not easy.
“I have done a lot of crisis work during my career,” she says. “Different hurricanes and other things. It was the most difficult job of all time because it is so unknown.”
Whitely told student leaders how integral they are to the college’s reopening plan.
“You are all more crucial than you have ever been before,” she told a group of guidance officers during Zoom this month. “We have to get everyone to cooperate, because if we have an epidemic, it becomes a problem for everyone.”
The university plans to hire student ambassadors to help implement some of the new health policies, such as wearing a mask and social distancing. It is also one of the many schools that have established contracts for returning students, requiring them to follow the new guidelines in the event of a pandemic. One of these agreements, at the University of Pennsylvania, ask students “Refrain from organizing, hosting or attending events, parties or other social gatherings off campus”.
Of course, student agreements are not new. Almost all campuses in America have a student manual or code of conduct, says Martha Compton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. And for the most part, they work. “The vast majority of students follow the guidelines, with an even higher level when related to classroom behavior,” says Compton. But it is imperative that colleges educate students about the rules, especially if they have changed. She also advises colleges to apply the rules with compassion and leniency – for example, having masks available when someone forgets.
At the University of Virginia, Ellen Yates, senior, worked with a handful of students to determine what messages and application should look like on her campus.
“We want to create a kind of police culture on the ground where students feel they are being watched or watched,” she said. “We rather want to work for responsibility between the students.”
Campus security will require the buy-in of all students, as it is not just an individual decision like drinking. COVID-19 is a contagious disease, so peer behavior has an impact on the whole community. Yates is convinced that the key is to make wearing a mask and social isolation the norm. Students will follow the example of their classmates, she said, especially the students they admire and admire. She sees it as a positive peer pressure strategy.
But even she has doubts.
“All of our routines are built around social interaction,” says Yates. “It’s just a whole new set of social conditions that no one my age has certainly been subjected to.”