University officials planned for months for the resumption of fall classes amid the pandemic, with experts advising them on the rapidly evolving understanding of the novel coronavirus. They spent tens of billions of dollars creating massive testing programs, clearing out dorm space for quarantines, sticking reminder dots six feet apart on sidewalks, overhauling ventilation systems and crafting public health campaigns centered around feisty mask-wearing mascots.
But as cases of the coronavirus have popped up on campuses, forcing some schools to empty their dorms or switch to virtual classes, one factor cannot be ignored: Students like to party. And good luck reining that in.
College presidents, student leaders and local officials are trying a variety of approaches. Some – like the University of Maryland’s president – are dropping by popular bars near campus to hand out masks to students outside and remind them to stay safe. Others are moving to shut down socializing altogether, or berating fraternities who host parties. Others have gone so far as to kick students out for violating rules. All of this has created new tension over who really is to blame.
Some of the penalties and scoldings have infuriated students, who argue that administrators should be held accountable if the virus spreads on a campus that they have chosen to reopen in the middle of a pandemic.
“I don’t think they’ve ever truly owned up to the fact that it was a bad idea from the start,” said Zack Jenio, a junior at North Carolina State University, which announced less than two weeks into the semester that it was pivoting to online classes.
When West Virginia University temporarily shifted classes online this month, President Gordon Gee blamed some students’ “selfish decisions” for a spike in cases. “If the safety protocols had been followed and large gatherings had not been held by students with reckless disregard of their fellow students and community members,” Gee wrote in a recent note to campus, “we may not be in this situation.”
This week, WVU announced it would resume some in-person instruction Monday, and praised students who had followed safety guidelines. The school also said about 120 students face coronavirus-related sanctions. Of those, 24 students were suspended and one was expelled and, according to student code, would not receive a refund of tuition and fees.
At many schools, the number of coronavirus cases has stayed low thus far even with students living on campus. But with the knowledge that cases can spike quickly – and with the health of the surrounding communities as well as students, faculty and staff at stake – the question of how best to inspire or enforce compliance with public health guidelines has deadly urgency.
Colgate University President Brian Casey said the concern is that students will let down their guard and think having a party won’t have an effect.
“What we’re trying to say to them is – it will,” Casey said. “We’ve seen other college campuses where one or two large parties radically spikes up infections.”
When N.C. State moved to online-only classes for undergraduates last month, the school’s chancellor pointed out that there had been large parties in off-campus houses and that several of the clusters could be traced to Greek life. Randy Woodson wrote that “the actions of a few are jeopardizing the health and safety of the larger community.”
That prompted anger at fraternities and sororities from some students, and pushback from members of the Greek community. Jenio, a columnist for the Technician, a campus newspaper, wrote that Greek life shouldn’t be the administration’s scapegoat.
It was clear from the start of the school year that a switch to virtual was inevitable, Jenio said in an interview. A junior majoring in biological sciences, Jenio said he saw students “going out and partying with the rationale that school’s going to shut down anyway, might as well hang out before that happens.”
But even as individuals made questionable decisions, he said the school had brought students back to live in close quarters.
Two sorority members described the intense backlash against Greek life after the switch, with people yelling and swearing at them and disparaging them in class.
“We knew the second we got back there was no way this would work,” said Sydney Brittain, a senior at N.C. State. After the chancellor’s announcement, she was getting coffee when someone saw the sorority sticker on her car and threw coffee at her. She shut down her Twitter account after people were messaging things like, “Go kill yourself.”
Shilpa Giri, another student journalist at N.C. State, countered that fraternities and sororities should apologize: “Greek life, own up to your bad decisions and fix them.”
N.C. State officials announced this week that the school plans to offer single dorm rooms only for the spring semester, and that they learned this semester that the coronavirus can quickly spread through social gatherings like parties and in communal living spaces with double rooms.
Many universities have penalized students after parties, gatherings or other violations, including Northeastern University. The school spent more than $50 million preparing to reopen this fall, including building a testing system, redesigning food operations and adding 1,500 beds across campus to reduce density.
Northeastern dismissed 11 students who had gathered in a hotel room in Boston as the semester began. The students can resume classes in January, according to university officials. The school had earlier threatened to rescind admission offers to students who had written on social media about plans for parties. Northeastern also established a tip line for people who want to report concerns about behavior, and it has a team monitoring the area around campus.
College leaders face a delicate balance in navigating how to enforce rules, experts said, with the need for clear consequences but not the kind of excessive shaming that research has shown can backfire.
There’s considerable frustration with students who ignore public-health guidelines – like the students in Ohio who knew they had COVID-19 but hosted a party over Labor Day weekend.
But Anna Song, an associate professor of health psychology at the University of California at Merced who studies risk-taking and decision-making among teenagers and young adults, said students ages 18 to 21 are essentially wired to make social connections.
It’s a time when they’re learning how to be in a group but have autonomy, navigate independence and form meaningful lasting adult relationships, she said – and now everyone is telling them not to get together.
Research has shown that brains continue to develop typically into a person’s mid-20s, Song said. “The parts that are developing at that stage are the parts that help us make decisions, help us plan, help us control our impulses – and those are the things you really need right now in this pandemic.”
Many schools asked students to help them plan efforts to safely reopen. At U-Md., student leaders, including members of each fraternity and sorority, are reminding friends of the rules.
Dan Alpert, student body president at U-Md., said students have stepped up in a variety of ways, including a fraternity leader working to create a team of people handing out masks and reminding people not to form crowds in downtown College Park.
“It’s not just the students’ fault,” Alpert said. “There can always be more done by the state, the county, the community, the school.”
Some students have been telling others that they want to stay on campus and not get forced home by an outbreak.
At schools such as Lehigh, Texas Tech, Sam Houston State, Purdue, Tulane and Marshall universities, exasperated students have used social media to expose people ignoring the rules.
A student account from Texas A&M shared photos on Twitter of gatherings such as people playing beer pong, fraternity members with their arms around each other, and people lining up for concert tickets.
In an appearance Tuesday at Texas A&M, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx praised student efforts in keeping the school’s infection rates to one of the lowest officials have seen in visits to college campuses this semester, according to the school.
Some local communities have also stepped up enforcement after complaints about students’ parties.
In College Park, Md., the city council recently passed a steep increase in fines for people who threaten the health and safety of the community, $50 to $1,000. Landlords, who previously faced a $75 fine if they didn’t provide the names of tenants when requested by the city – whether for contact tracing or after parties or other violations of coronavirus-related restrictions – now can be charged $1,000 a day until they comply, said the city’s mayor, Patrick Wojahn.
U-Md. President Darryll Pines has been walking through College Park on recent weekend nights to get his own perspective on how students are behaving. Route 1 – a major thoroughfare near campus – has been packed with students happy to be back, Pines said, but 90 percent of them are wearing masks and keeping their distance.
When he saw some barefaced students one night recently, Pines introduced himself, offered them Terrapin-themed masks and snapped a selfie with them. “It was a nice way to connect with students in a friendly way,” he said, and to reinforce the idea that “we have to stay apart so we can stay together longer.”
Colgate University’s president also took a friendly approach. When the school’s mandatory quarantine began, Casey holed up in a dorm room for two weeks, too. “We’re asking students to do something very hard,” he said. “You don’t ask someone to do something you’d be unwilling to do yourself.”
So he stayed in the small room, getting food delivered in a box, going outside only for limited periods, and getting used to students shouting hello into his first-floor window. It was hot, and loud, especially when he was trying to sleep. It wasn’t all the music and talking and laughing that kept him awake so much as the explosions – from video games being played in nearby rooms.
“I cannot wait to get back to my home – my dog – my coffee maker,” he said from quarantine earlier this month.
Still, he said it was important, and surprisingly uplifting, to be there. He could see how thrilled students were to be back on campus, and how earnestly many have taken to heart the school’s message that it will take collective effort to stay on campus.
Students have an incredibly hard time staying apart, he noted. They instinctively want to be close to each other, they want to talk to each other. “We have people helping,” he said, “with six-foot-long sticks.”
And they have enforced the rules. The school had already removed students from campus. There even was a small party in the dorm where he was staying.
“I was not invited,” he said, laughing. “Give them some credit.”