As the number of coronavirus cases surges across the U.S., skepticism is mounting over colleges’ ability to resume campus activity in the fall. Still, as of mid-July, around 55% of colleges were aiming for an in-person fall semester while another 30% were proposing a mix of online and in-person instruction, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the reopening plans of roughly 1,200 U.S. institutions. 

Colleges are modifying their physical spaces to enable a safe return, reconfiguring classrooms and gathering areas, plastering their walkways with social-distance stickers, establishing grab-and-go meal locations and installing plexiglass partitions in libraries. They’re rolling out coronavirus testing and contract-tracing initiatives. And some are postponing fall sports. 

But for those measures to achieve their purpose, colleges will also need to transform how students act and think — to ensure they develop safe and respectful, if unnatural, habits that help prevent the virus from spreading. 

“We’re all investing a great deal and trying to prepare for the return of students,” said David Wippman, the president of Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. “Yet I think all of us are aware that, at the end of the day, we need students to also cooperate with us and to respect the rules that we’re trying to put in place.”

Young people are accounting for a greater share of coronavirus cases in U.S. hotspots, a trend some observers partly attribute to partygoing, athletic activities and greek-life gatherings. 

Pointing to “the much-publicized behavior of students during spring break in Florida,” a recent report prepared for Connecticut’s governor underscores the difficulty of convincing some young people to comply with new “behavioral norms.” Many students, especially young adults, are tired of sheltering in place and are hungry for social interaction. Amid public officials’ ever-changing and inconsistent directives, many students could be confused about the best practices for preventing the virus’s spread. 

Against this backdrop, higher education leaders such as Wippman say top-down, punitive enforcement of the norms is fated to fail. Policing by faculty members and other authority figures can only go so far, if anywhere. Institutions need to instill in students a sense of stewardship and community responsibility, experts argue. And for that mindset to develop organically, schools will need students to help with — if not drive — the development and implementation of pandemic-oriented social contracts. 

“We’re putting in place all these rules,” Wippman said, “but we want the students themselves to be talking to and encouraging each other for everyone’s collective benefit.”

Changing students’ behavior

Getting students to act and think differently will be a massive undertaking, especially when it comes to modifying their behavior outside the classroom. Existing evidence suggests that students will generally comply with public health protocols when in class, said Martha Compton, the president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. Just as students know not to, say, consume alcohol during a physics lecture, they will generally understand that wearing a face covering is a prerequisite for being in the classroom. 

But young adults’ brains are wired for reward, especially when interacting with peers. “It’s developmentally appropriate for college students to test boundaries,” said Compton, who also serves as the dean of students at Concordia University Texas. And colleges — particularly public institutions — have limited legal authority over and insight into what students do elsewhere, she added. 

Myriad op-eds, including one co-authored by Wippman for The New York Times, predict that if left to their own devices, traditionally aged college students will continue to engage in risky activities, such as interacting with one another sans masks or attending parties.

“[S]tudents being students will do what students have always done: congregate in packs, drink heavily, and comingle,” wrote Paul Kellermann, a teaching professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, in a June op-ed for Esquire. “That is the nature of college culture, with campus serving as a petri dish for the spread of the coronavirus.” 

Kellermann argues that the university “cannot — and should not — monitor student behavior twenty-four hours a day,” instead calling on the institution to suspend in-person instruction in the fall. Kellermann is one of more than 1,100 Penn State instructors who have signed an open letter questioning the flagship university’s decision to reopen campus in the fall.

Intent on reopening, many colleges are banking on their ability to influence student behavior. Most schools already have provisions in their student codes of conduct that can be applied to behavior during the pandemic. And many schools are planning to leverage those provisions or otherwise revise or add them to set new norms. 


“We’re putting in place all these rules, but we want the students themselves to be talking to and encouraging each other for everyone’s collective benefit.”

David Wippman

President, Hamilton College


But some are going a step further in an effort to secure students’ buy-in, creating ad hoc social contracts that outline how campus constituents are expected to behave and engage with one another in light of the virus. In response to the pandemic, the University of Pennsylvania, for example, developed a Student Campus Compact for the upcoming school year. Among other provisions, it stipulates strict physical distancing and face-mask usage for the 14 days before students arrive on campus or in Philadelphia. 

Anderson University, a small Christian institution in Indiana, created a Community Care Covenant, which it bills as “a pathway to help protect the most vulnerable among us.” When students sign onto the covenant, they commit to habits such as regular handwashing and social distancing. Students also will be expected to participate in daily wellness checks, uploading their info to an app being developed by the biometrics company Daon. The app will be used to determine whether a student can access classrooms and other community facilities, according to John Pistole, Anderson’s president. The school’s residence halls will also have a closed-off section on each floor where students who live in the dorm can convene to chat and eat mask-free.

“One of the unknowns … is how readily students will actually accept (the new social rules) when they come on campus,” Pistole said. One benefit of the covenant, which has already been disseminated among students and employees, is that it helps to set expectations early on, he said.

Colleges should focus on helping students understand that new norms such as mask-wearing and avoiding big gatherings are “how we take care of each other,” Compton said. Schools should “remind folks about the ethics of care that we have in our campus communities,” she continued. These principles could include students being aware of the risks they pose to others on campus — including their favorite professor, an academic advisor or even a classmate with an underlying health condition. 

Creating role models

As part of its norm-setting, the University of Miami, in Florida, is tasking student leaders with modeling and evangelizing those behaviors on the grounds that “peers listen to peers,” said Patricia Whitely, the school’s long-serving vice president for student affairs. The university will also be hiring a cadre of 50 students as public health ambassadors — for $10 an hour — to enforce mask-wearing, six-foot distancing and so on. The idea is to create positive peer pressure, Whitely said, “because what students don’t want to do is go home.” She has been meeting virtually with student organization leaders and campus constituents to gather feedback and answer questions. 

Student involvement in the development and messaging is “crucial” for these plans to succeed, Compton said, highlighting schools that have posted videos, for example, of students touting the importance of mask-wearing. “There’s a lot of power in seeing students stand up to their peers and say, ‘This really is important — I need you to do this not because it’s a rule but because it’s the right thing to do,'” Compton said. 

Support from parents will also be key. Whitely has been engaging with parents on Facebook and in virtual town halls, encouraging them to help their kids understand that social distancing will be inevitable and that it will be important to adjust their behavior for the sake of others.

Still, experts cautioned colleges against subscribing to stereotypes about youth negligence in the coronavirus era. 

“I generally am not (a) Pollyanna about student behavior,” Compton said, “but I don’t think (college populations) are any less likely to comply with expectations than is the general public.” 

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