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How Colleges and Universities Can Promote Social Distancing

Colleges and universities across the United States have revealed reopening plans for Fall of 2020, with the majority of institutions opting for a hybrid model that blends in-person classes and virtual learning. For any institution planning to bring students back to campus in the fall, a lot will rest on students compliance with social-distancing guidelines. If a college or university faces an outbreak on campus, the school might be forced to shut down for a second time, complicating student travel plans or living arrangements and disrupting budgets for a second time. 

As a result, administrators are issuing social contracts or updating code of conduct policy to require students adhere to social distancing guidelines, as per Inside Higher Ed. Additionally, schools have canceled formal in-person events on campus, including sports, productions, graduation ceremonies, for the upcoming academic semester. 

In addition to plans to test students, faculty, and staff for COVID-19, de-densification of residence halls or community spaces, and a shortened semester, schools are relying on student commitment to social distancing guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus. Administrators are hoping conduct codes and written pledges will stop students from hosting large gatherings, and ensure they adhere to social distancing, and wear face masks, as per Inside Higher Ed. Public health campaigns on campus, with clear signage and online training modules at the start of the semester, will be designed to further promote healthy behavior on campus. 

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Around the United States, coronavirus cases are surging among young people, and several college-related events such as fraternity parties, spring break trips, drinking at off-campus bars, or athletic practices have been linked to virus clusters, according to NPR. Additionally, risky behavior, including reckless driving and binge drinking, peak during the late teens and early 20s, as per the New York Times. Programs designed to dissuade risk-taking behavior don’t always work, and a pervasive misconception that COVID-19 only impacts older and high-risk populations might make social distancing management even more difficult. 

How can Colleges or Universities Encourage Social Distancing

With only a small number of students, faculty, and staff, returning to campus in the fall, there are proactive efforts colleges and universities can take to promote social distancing behaviors, such as creating effective messaging or education around COVID-19 mitigation, reconfiguring dormitories into family-sized clusters, and hiring student ambassadors to help draft contracts or enforce new health measures. 

Establish New Policy & Code of Conduct

Many colleges and universities are creating a new code of conduct for students, requiring individuals on campus to minimize the spread of COVID-19. For example, the University of Pennsylvania published a “Student Campus Compact” for students to sign, including agreements on health or wellness, campus movement, travel & guests, and social life or recreation. Violations of the agreement will be reviewed by a “Compact Review Panel” composed of staff and faculty members with experience in public health and student life. The panel will gather the information it needs to assess whether a violation of the Compact occurred, the seriousness of the violation, whether prior violations have taken place, and other relevant circumstances to refer the case to the Office of Student Conduct or determine the appropriate disciplinary action. 

Focus on Messaging

Anna Song, who studies young-adult decision making at University of California, posits that college-age individuals will be more responsive to messaging that stresses the health and safety of family members or vulnerable peers, as per NPR. Additionally, many young people may not understand that COVID-19 can have serious health implications for people aged 18-24, even those without preexisting conditions. Administrators should look to communicate the high-stakes implications of violating social distancing, while striking an empathetic tone that acknowledges the sacrifice many college students are making during this time, such as the social-emotional isolation that can come along with self quarantine. Making counseling and other mental health resources readily available can be a critical component of guiding students through this difficult period. 

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A mass notification system can be a powerful tool for creating strong, cohesive messaging around social distancing protocol. Administrators can share updates on the status of the institution and distribute customizable content, such as a student campus compact, health tips, emergency procedures, and other preparedness instructions. A polling feature can boost student engagement by distributing class schedules, canceled school events, or travel updates, and requiring students to quickly acknowledge the message. 

Reconfigure Student Spaces

The CDC considerations for higher education during COVID-19 recommend modifying layouts across campus, providing adequate distance between students in classrooms or lecture halls and during experiential learning opportunities, such as labs or clinics. Colleges and universities should keep communal spaces such as student centers, gyms, game rooms, and lounges closed, and keep dining halls as strictly takeout. Additional considerations, such as sneezeguard barriers in bathrooms, laundry rooms, and other areas, can be made as well. The CDC also published a guideline for shared or congregate housing, which offers additional guidance on bolstering the safety of communal living. 

In June, some colleges and universities were considering putting students in suites and treating the living situation as a family unit or households, as per the New York Times. (High-risk or immunocompromised students living on campus would be given single-rooms on campus). If one individual in a family-sized cluster, approximately 4-8 students per suite, got sick, the whole group could self-quarantine. While this might seem to be increasing risk, college or university leaders are hoping that by allowing some socialization it will actually encourage students to be more responsible. Administrators are also thinking of grouping students on hallways to limit the number of individuals using communal bathrooms, as public safety experts are concerned these spaces could be among the higher-risk for transmission. 

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Hire Student Ambassadors

Instead of relying on campus safety to enforce social distancing, engage student leaders and ambassadors, to help enforce both social distancing and mask wearing. By doing so, administrators can avoid creating a culture where students feel watched or monitored, and the environment can be more collaborative. Students can better communicate that peer behavior impacts the entire community, and that social distancing is an act of community service. If students are being told that social distancing is important by a peer they look up to and respect, they are more likely to make responsible public health decisions. 

Make Resources Accessible

A campus safety app can also help disseminate COVID-19 information and raise awareness concerning student behavior. The app contains a customizable directory of student protocols and resources, allowing every community member to access up-to-date information on classes, dining halls, or other spaces on campus. Two-way messaging within the app can also help students report any symptoms the might be experiencing, or any gatherings on campus that seem to violate a student campus compact.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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