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The Wild Card For An In-Person Fall: College Student Behavior

Anke Gladnick for NPR

When asked if he could imagine a college party where everyone is wearing masks, Jacques du Passage, a sophomore at Louisiana State University, laughs.

"No. I don't think they would do that," he says. "I think [students] would just have the party and then face the repercussions."

That's exactly what Apramay Mishra, student body president at the University of Kansas, is worried about when it comes to reopening campus amid the pandemic. "Right now it's kind of slipped from most people's minds," he says. Students "don't really think it's a big deal."

Around the U.S., coronavirus cases are rising among young people. The spread of the virus has been connected to college-related events such as fraternity parties, drinking at off-campus bars and athletic practices. For colleges planning to bring thousands of students together in the fall, student spread is a real worry. And the stakes are high: If there are outbreaks, campuses may once again be forced to shut down, scattering students and disrupting academics and college finances all over again.

To keep that from happening, schools have created robust guidelines — but those plans rely on a major wild card: students following the rules.

"That's the conversation everyone is having right now," says Anna Song, who studies young adult decision-making at the University of California, Merced. Many college students still have developing brains, so it's not that they aren't informed or that they don't understand the risks — it's that they're wired differently. "They are highly sensitized to reward, especially in the context of peers," she explains. Hanging out with friends is a pretty incredible reward, given that many students have been isolated for months.

"Peer culture is ... not easy to change"

Changing campus culture and student behavior isn't just about rewards. Song found that you can influence behavior if you find the right messaging. She studies smoking habits, and she has found that students who believe that their smoking will harm their friend's health are significantly less likely to start smoking themselves. The challenge for colleges is to figure out what messages will motivate students to adhere to the guidelines. Song isn't convinced that the idea of keeping faculty safe will be enough — she says administrators may have to focus on family members or friends who are vulnerable.

Other experts are less optimistic that student behavior can change. "Peer culture is really durable. It is not easy to change," says Kristen Renn, an associate dean at Michigan State University. "We haven't done it with alcohol. We haven't done it with sexual behavior. We haven't done it with all kinds of things."

Renn is most worried about the moments outside the classroom: brushing teeth, running into friends, grabbing dinner. And Song is worried about those too.

"I vacillate back and forth, honestly. Day to day," she says. "I am optimistic, but there are some real serious challenges. And we can't be naive that those challenges aren't there. Are we asking them to do something that is almost near impossible?"

The front lines

At the University of Miami, Pat Whitely, vice president of student affairs, is responsible for figuring out how to reopen dorms, how to orient new students and how to make sure everyone follows the rules. It hasn't been easy.

"I've done a lot of crisis work in my career," she says. "Different hurricanes and things. This has been the hardest work ever because it's so much of the unknown."

Whitely has been telling student leaders how integral they are to the college's reopening plan.

"All of you are more crucial than you've ever been before," she told a group of orientation leaders over Zoom this month. "We have to have everybody cooperate, because if we have an outbreak, then that becomes a problem for everybody."

The university plans to hire student ambassadors to help enforce some of the new health policies, such as mask wearing and social distancing. It's also one of many schools that have drawn up contracts for students coming back to campus, requiring them to follow the new pandemic guidelines. One such agreement, at the University of Pennsylvania, asks students to "refrain from organizing, hosting, or attending events, parties, or other social gatherings off-campus."

Of course, student agreements aren't new. Nearly every campus in America has a student handbook or code of conduct, explains Martha Compton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. And for the most part, they work. "The vast majority of students do abide by guidelines, with an even higher level when they're related to classroom conduct," Compton says. But it's imperative that colleges educate students on the rules, especially if they've changed. She also advises that colleges enforce the rules with compassion and leniency — for example, having masks available when someone forgets.

At the University of Virginia, senior Ellen Yates has been working with a handful of students to figure out what messaging and enforcement should look like on her campus.

"We are concerned about creating a kind of policing culture on grounds where students feel like they're being watched or monitored," she says. "We want to instead work for accountability between students."

Keeping campuses safe will require buy-in from all students, because it's not just an individual decision, like alcohol consumption. COVID-19 is a contagious disease, so peer behavior impacts the entire community. Yates is convinced that the key is to make mask wearing and social distancing the norm. Students will follow the example of their fellow students, she says, particularly students whom they admire and look up to. She thinks of it as a positive peer pressure strategy.

But even she has doubts.

"All of our routines are built around social interaction," says Yates. "It's just a totally new set of social conditions that certainly nobody in my age has ever been subjected to."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.