Dive Brief: 

  • Roughly three-quarters of college leaders surveyed said their greatest concern about maintaining social distancing is that students won’t follow guidelines in campus housing.
  • Consultant EAB polled 69 college administrators. It found more than half (57%) were concerned about enforcing social distancing measures in campus common areas. About an equal share (52%) were worried students wouldn’t follow safety measures off campus.  
  • College leaders are scrambling over the summer to prepare campuses to reopen in the fall. But there’s still “little consensus” among institutions about how they will enforce policies meant to stem the virus’s spread, the report notes. 

Dive Insight: 

Although their plans vary, colleges are using several common tactics to promote social distancing on campus this fall. Ninety-three percent of colleges will be using floor markers to help students remain six feet apart, and 79% are using social media to raise awareness of safety guidelines, EAB found

Three-quarters of schools are also asking student leaders to promote social distancing to their peers, according to the new findings. “They feel their best bet is going to be embedding distancing measures into social norms, essentially,” said Hailey Badger, an associate director at EAB. “They think that’s going to be a more effective effort than trying to take a purely punitive approach.” 

Yet campus leaders harbor doubts whether such tactics will work. Fewer than one-third of respondents were highly confident in their ability to effectively encourage undergraduate students to maintain social distancing. 

Purdue University, in Indiana, is among the colleges planning to reopen campus this fall. Those on campus will be asked to sign the Protect Purdue Pledge, which asks them to get vaccinated for the flu, wash their hands often, maintain social distancing and stay home if they feel ill or have been in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

But the community is still concerned. A vast majority of Purdue’s faculty, staff, graduate and postdoctoral students don’t expect its undergraduates to follow social distancing on and off campus, according to a recent survey.

It’s unclear how the university will enforce its rules. Experts say some methods — such as having students sign waivers or contracts — could send the message that being on campus is unsafe. Some health experts have publicly expressed that reopening campuses could put students and the broader community at risk.

Other colleges are in a similar situation as Purdue. Some institutions aren’t considering sanctions for students who violate guidelines. Others, however, are exploring banning students from campus for a period if they repeatedly fail to comply with policies, EAB’s report notes. 

Administrators’ top concern on proposed penalties is that they are carried out equitably, EAB found. 

“People are still really figuring out the compliance question,” Badger said. “We sort of expected to see more of a coherent finding in that, but people are kind of in different places.”

Fear of punishment could make it harder for colleges to conduct contact tracing, a key part of many institutions’ fall reopening plans. For instance, students who test positive may be less likely to disclose who they’ve been in contact with if their actions violated their colleges’ rules, Badger explained. 

“Institutions should be definitely planning for some sort of amnesty in cases where they’re contact tracing around a confirmed case,” she said. 

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