Partygoers have already been hesitant to cooperate with contact tracers off campus—and this reluctance will only be amplified for students who fear being disciplined for breaking the rules. Students who put the campus community at grave risk should face appropriate consequences, but students also need to be reassured that they won’t be punished for disclosing symptoms, testing positive, or sharing contacts from an illicit gathering. A similar model is used to address substance use on some campuses, such as Tufts University, where students who call for medical attention for an alcohol- or drug-related emergency are exempt from punishment.
Students are making their own educated judgments about how their school should proceed. University of Connecticut students told a team of behavioral scientists that they wanted some education about how to reduce risk to themselves and others and that compassionate and supportive public-health messages would be more effective than moralistic or fear-based ones. Hearing that university administrators understand how difficult some forms of social distancing are for students might make the students more motivated to stick with it. And when some students inevitably break the rules, administrators should remember that young people want to socialize not because they are selfish, but to reduce loneliness, and communications should be designed accordingly.
Julia Marcus: Quarantine fatigue is real
As much as administrators want to rely on students’ maturity and conscientiousness, expectations need to be realistic. Some schools are requiring an on-campus quarantine at the beginning of the semester, but—as the UConn students agreed—an abstinence-only approach that orders students to lock themselves in their dorm rooms would likely fail. Instead, campuses could adopt a harm-reduction approach, which has been successful in minimizing the unintended consequences of other behaviors—including sex and substance use—in young people. Students should be told not to throw parties in a pandemic, just as they are told not to engage in underage drinking on campus. But universities should also acknowledge that some students are going to socialize and will need tools to minimize harms—just as some students will drink and need free rides home.
Students need to hear not just what they can’t do, but also what they can do. Although house parties are a no-go, small outdoor gatherings—especially within social bubbles—are a reasonable choice. In addition to guidance on ways to socialize as safely as possible, campuses could provide lower-risk alternatives to crowded indoor parties: Think movies, yoga classes, and concerts—all outdoors with social distancing encouraged and school-branded masks provided. The Cardinal Nights program at Stanford University uses a similar approach to reduce drinking on campus, providing alcohol-free options for socializing—including sports games and comedy nights—that divert students from higher-risk activities.
College students will need to adapt their behaviors for universities to function in the fall, but students are not solely—or even primarily—responsible for keeping campuses safe. Shaming and threatening students will only obstruct public-health efforts. If universities want to reopen and stay open, administrators need to adopt a compassionate and realistic approach that supports students in staying socially connected and mentally healthy—not just free of coronavirus infection.