The quintessential experience of starting college, living on campus, and making new friends is going to be a bit different this fall. That rich social life so typical of collegiate environments may become memories that will “light the corners of the mind,” as Barbra Streisand sang in the ’70s. Those of us who went to college then will remember how mono was dubbed “the kissing disease.” But none of us had to worry about a deadly virus that can spread to others long before the carrier is aware of being infected.
Colleges are built upon a communal foundation, where students live together, interact with one another, and exchange their thoughts, ideas and opinions. Theories of college student development attribute the growth not just to the academic exposure but also to the rich interactive social environment that promotes social, emotional and intellectual growth.
The effect of this COVID-19 virus is causing a paradigm shift in higher education. Colleges must keep revenues flowing while keeping students safe on campus. In addition to tuition, room and board charges provide a hefty amount of cash flow. Colleges need to open this fall to remain financially solvent. According to “Inside Higher Ed,” colleges could either merge or teach online exclusively.
Many South Carolina public institutions have announced that they will stop in-person classes at Thanksgiving. November is the flu season and the risk is greater this year with COVID-19. A few private colleges announced that they will keep doors open through December, but if students leave campus to go home for Thanksgiving, they won’t be able to return until the following semester.
According to Dr. James Welch, an expert in biosafety and biosecurity, an affiliate with the Health Science Institute at Georgetown University, colleges should have specific measures in place to lower the R0 (pr. “R naught”) number. This is the reproduction number of a virus in a specific environment. Scientists use the R0 to measure the reproduction rate of transmission.
The R-naught chances of spreading the virus are affected by biological, behavioral and environmental factors. On campus, this metric is affected by many factors. The population is young, typically more impulsive, willing to take more chances. The fun of college involves commingling to share thoughts, notions, and experiences. But the classrooms, dorms and dining halls weren’t designed for social distancing. In fact, the architectural layout of campus was designed to eliminate the silo effect that would keep students apart from each other. The R0 factor is not an easy mathematical model to estimate, and on a college campus, measuring for the rate of contagious transmission could give scientists a run for their money.
Dr. Welch says parents and students should expect colleges to take strict measures to mitigate the spread. Besides cleaning and sanitizing, they should measure students’ temperature daily and provide testing kits. The dining halls should adopt the same rules as restaurants, spacing out tables, eliminating the buffets and pre-packaging meals separately. Students who live in suites should form a family unit and avoid extraneous interaction. Colleges are setting aside a block of rooms in which to isolate students who test positive. According to Dr. Welch, this is a better method than to send the students home where they could infect their family.
Some of my first-year students were notified of the reductions in campus activities. They will not be able to use the kitchenette on their dorm floor. They will need to officially schedule their time in the laundry room. My upper-level students who have already experienced the novelty of first year, say they would prefer to take classes remotely.
C. Claire Law, M.S. is an expert in college admissions and financial aid. She’s an IECA Professional Member and co-authored “Find the Perfect College For You.”