How Colleges Can Actually Stay Open
Across the country, many universities are planning to reopen campuses in the coming weeks ahead. My own university, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), is planning to resume in-person classes on August 31st. WPI President Laurie Leshin, in her announcement that campus would reopen, cited three goals in WPI’s decision to reopen:
- Support the health, safety, and well-being of our community
- Advance the education and career goals of our students
- Enable our educators, researchers, and innovators to do the kind of work that our world needs now more than ever.
These are noble goals, and virtually every university that made the decision to resume in-person classes has made a similar statement. However, instead of putting into place realistic strategies to achieve these goals, university administrators have chosen to engage in magical thinking about the reopening of campuses. While universities have been quick to cancel clubs, varsity sports, social gatherings, and other hallmarks of college life, administrators have not provided reasonable alternatives. Bringing thousands of socially starved college students near each other and expecting students to not socialize with each other in large groups or in close proximity while providing no safe alternatives is frankly absurd. This “abstinence only” model for college socialization is not only destined to fail, but also it ignores the very realistic mental and psychological strains that have disproportionately affected college age individuals due to the isolation of the past few months. In short, university administrators are copying the failed abstinence only approach to sexual education.
While it is clearly wrong for students to be irresponsible and violate safety measures intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, colleges that do not take into account students’ human need to socialize and impose unrealistic limitations on students are destined to fail. The mental health effects of prolonged social isolation and vast disruption to normal life due to COVID-19 have disproportionately affected college age individuals. According to a survey of over 18,000 college students, over 60% of respondents said that the pandemic made accessing mental health resources more difficult, while the rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, serious psychological distress, suicidal ideation, and suicide risk have spiked, in part due to social isolation.
A hallmark of the American collegiate experience is the vibrant social life on campus. University administrators have a duty to replicate as much of that classic collegiate experience as possible while maintaining COVID-19 safety measures. For example, indoor club sports may not be possible this semester, but administrators should be doing everything possible to allow for outdoor club sports. Additionally, many clubs on campus have traditionally met indoors. Rather than cancelling clubs altogether, university administrators would be wise to allow for socially distanced, outdoor club meetings. Many students flock to campus buildings to find quiet environments to work with classmates on schoolwork. An easy way to make collaborative work safer is to set up outdoor tents with whiteboards and other necessary materials to allow students to work in groups in outdoor environments. The necessity of this is all the more urgent when it comes to finding suitable replacements for parties.
It is widely acknowledged that many students (yes, even those under 21) consume alcohol and marijuana on a frequent basis, oftentimes at parties or other large gatherings. If university administrators are serious about keeping campuses open, they should be providing outdoor spaces where students (yes, even those under 21) can socialize and consume alcohol and marijuana without fear of punishment or judgement in as safe of a manner as possible. While locking students in their living spaces would be safer, providing lower risk alternatives to the widespread parties and large gatherings that traditionally take place on college campuses is vastly more realistic.
In short, we should call on universities to engage in risk mitigation and provide a safer means of socializing for students rather than preaching abstinence from socializing. If university administrators are serious about keeping campuses open, they must provide a means for students to safely socialize rather than engaging in wishful thinking and later blaming students when obviously unrealistic plans that ignore human nature and the effects of COVID-19 on college students inevitably fail.