Advice for College-Bound Students and Their Parents

School Staying Safe

Time for another Nerdy Guest! This post addresses questions college-bound students and their parents might have about health on campus.

Teri Aronowitz, PhD, FNP-BC, FAAN is an Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts Boston & a Family Nurse Practitioner at Boston University Student Health Services. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of American College Health. The following represents the opinions of the author only. The American College Health Association is a great resource for up-to-date information about college and university health.

Q: How are colleges and universities making decisions about resuming classes for Fall 2020 in light of COVID-19?

A: Many institutions are making plans to return to coursework and other academic activities on campus in stages, especially large residential campuses that are dedicated to the residential experience for students. Administration and faculty have been working to develop plans regarding how to reopen research, teaching, and learning environments that will comply with public health guidance. Commuter schools are considering the risks of the school community traveling back and forth, many on public transportation. In those situations, some institutions are making the decision to remain remote at least until spring semester. Regardless of the current institutional decisions, guidelines will most certainly be updated as new information about COVID spread becomes available.

Q: What will campus life be like?

A: Like with any virus, the main fear regarding COVID-19 and campus life is related to the spread that can happen when the university community mixes with a larger population—like on an urban campus–because this puts both the larger community and the students at risk. Some universities are considering the creation of “closed circuits” with small numbers of individuals. For example, there may be 10 students in the same program that are assigned living arrangements together and take the same classes. They would not have to socially distance from each as long as a confirmed infection in one member means that all members will quarantine.

Small rural campuses may try to create a closed circuit that encompasses the whole campus. Risk reduction strategies will include testing and asking people to self-report any symptoms, including minor ones. College campuses are “leaky” environments so it will be important to decrease the density, and everyone will need to wear masks.

This is an unprecedented time affecting a generation of college students. They are our future and we need to believe in them–including that they will follow advice in order to be able to return to their academic plans. Campuses will be following social distancing guidelines that include student living spaces. For example, in the past we may have had suites with 4-8 students with a common kitchen space and bathrooms. Universities are now planning to decrease the number of students in living spaces.

Limiting the density of the on-campus population reduces the chances of incidental contact that spreads illness. To further reduce the chances of exposure, administration and faculty are developing protocols to limit public access to campus buildings. Departments will be encouraged to continue to engage with visitors remotely whenever possible. Students who return to campus may need to carry a student ID with them at all times to help prevent access to spaces by individuals who are not students, staff, or faculty. Universities will determine the best way to monitor access to buildings, considering the volume and frequency of occupants and hours of operation.

Many universities across the country are starting the semester a month earlier than usual so that the semester is complete by Thanksgiving break. This is a creative plan that allows students to go home for the holiday and remain home until spring semester. Not only will this decrease travel but will also mean that the campus will have less individuals on campus during the beginning of the flu season and a possible 2nd wave of COVID-19.

Administration and faculty are working to decrease the size of large classes so that social distancing can occur. Some possible arrangements include providing the lectures remotely and large rooms for labs or group work to promote social distancing.

When activities begin returning to campus, employees are likely to be asked to return to onsite work in staggered schedules and shifts (certain days of the week, specific hours of the day), limiting the number of individuals working in an office space at one time.

Some institutions are discussing how they can increase testing of the student body. It is not reasonable to expect that there will be no cases; everyone should expect that there will be positive cases. The critical aspect of planning is that testing and contact tracking policies will be in place so that once a case is discovered isolation and tracking are initiated immediately to watch for and control clusters.

Q: What can students do to stay safe?

A: Students will need to maintain social distancing and will likely be required to wear masks. Other creative plans universities are considering include cutting the number of students on campus by half, by having only the freshman and senior classes come back to campus in fall. The sophomores and juniors will study remotely for the fall semester. This will aid in meeting the social distancing guidelines. Everyone is working on creative ways to continue higher education with as close to a true campus experience as possible.

Many campuses will have signage posted with directional arrows to encourage people to stick to one side of hallways to maximize distance when passing others. Doors will be propped to decrease exposure of hands on surfaces. Frequent cleaning and handwashing will be encouraged. Close working spaces and high-density areas where students are likely to congregate (eating areas) will be reconfigured to allow at least 6 feet of physical distancing. Students, faculty and staff should also monitor for symptoms and avoid going out if they feel ill.

Q: What can parents do to help prepare?

A: Parents should review all guidelines with their college-bound kids and make sure they have the resources they need to stay safe. For example, students should bring a first aid kit with basic needs like Tylenol and hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. This is important even when we are not dealing with a pandemic, but it is particularly important now. In addition, parents and college-bound students should discuss the need for frequent cleaning of dorms and living areas.

About Dr. Aronowitz

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