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They Know It’ll Be Weird. Here’s What Can Help.

We’re hearing a lot from college leaders and public-health experts about what the fall should, or can, look like on campus. But what are students thinking?

That’s what Sherry Pagoto, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut, wanted to find out. So she and a graduate student, Laurie Groshon, conducted focus groups.

Here’s some of what they learned, which Pagoto recently laid out in this informative Twitter thread:

Every student said the university’s required 14-day quarantine before the semester was unrealistic. Students will be eager to see each other and will find a way to do so, Pagoto said. Also, they were concerned about boredom.

One student suggested that instead of asking students to come back to quarantine for two weeks before classes start, the university should ask students to quarantine during the first two week of classes, and make those weeks all online. At least they’d have something to do.

Here’s how else students said their university can help make quarantine tolerable: Get them outside. They’re more enthusiastic about socially distanced outdoor activities like exercise classes or movies than about online games or activities.

Students want do’s and don’ts. They asked for specific guidance. They want to be educated about why all these steps are important. Pagoto said they noticed that some students had misinformed beliefs and knowledge gaps. One good idea: several students’ suggestion that the university offer a required Covid-19 training module at the beginning of the semester.

Shame and fear are obstacles. When asked about testing and contact tracing, students seemed scared about being shamed if people figured out they got infected doing something risky. They also feared getting in trouble. They worried they would be kicked off campus if they were infected. And they worried about sharing contacts from bars if they were under the legal drinking age.

“Infection really needs to be de-stigmatized on campus,” Pagoto said.

One of the best ways to motivate students? Emphasize spring:

Uncertainties and Contradictions

What’s clear from talking with some students ourselves this week is just how many things they’re worried about and how uncertain all of it remains.

Annie Bennett, a sophomore at Emerson College, raises a bunch of issues she and her classmates are grappling with:

  • How will we make friends?
  • Will some of my current friends even be able to come back (could they, for example, be banned if they’re from a hot spot like Texas)?
  • What happens to work-study jobs? Resident assistant jobs?
  • Will there be sports?
  • Has enough been done to make hands-on majors work?

Emerson right now is planning for “flex learning” this fall, with most courses consisting of a combination of in-person and online experiences. Bennett is a member of a student action committee assisting the college with re-opening plans. Still, she’s still worried that not enough students are part of the conversation. Many of the people on the committee are the same student leaders, she says, whose voices are already being heard.

Part of the problem for students right now may be mixed messages.

“Colleges are claiming they need to bring students back to campus so they can have ‘the college experience,’“ says Benjy Renton, a senior at Middlebury College, “while simultaneously promising they will enact policies and measures (due to the current health situation) which would prevent that experience from happening.”

Princeton University, for example, has announced it will close all of their student organization facilities. More generally, Renton says, people are starting to realize it will be incredibly hard to replicate the kind of close interactions that a liberal-arts environment, especially, relies on.

“It’s hard to imagine how college life will be enjoyable, to be honest,” Renton says. “I think people need to realize that they’ll probably be on a campus, taking online classes, and staying in their rooms a lot.”

+ More reading about students:

  • This New Yorker column argues that colleges should be doing more to engage students in conceiving and organizing their education during the pandemic. “Instead, they are treating them alternately as clients and as children, people to be pleased or managed.”
  • This Chronicle of Higher Education story highlights social-distancing ideas students came up with when the University of Michigan’s engineering school invited proposals.

— Sara Hebel and NaTavia Williams

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Town, Gown, and Masks

College towns may be joined at the economic hip to their campuses — but this fall they’d like a little more distance.

In Charlottesville, Va., students back in town for a traditional mid-summer party are already making residents nervous about the fall. Mayor Nikuyah Walker was blunt:

“I, for one, do not understand why the students are coming back into the community from all over the globe and why we would take that chance. It’s a recipe for disaster … and we’ll be left here cleaning up the fallout from that decision.”

In Amherst, Mass., the town manager criticized the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s decision to bring some students back. Since the university will be largely shut down, students will end up in town even more than normal, said Paul Bockelman.

“Without normal University programming, students will have to produce their own college experience, creating conditions that will likely result in a spike in COVID-19 cases in the Town,” he said, in a four-page letter to the chancellor. “This is not to disparage students but simply to acknowledge a well-established fact that is already evident by our shared history and at other universities.”

And in New Orleans, a Tulane University dean wrote a sharply worded email to students after evidence of large parties during the Fourth of July weekend among students in the city. Here are the key parts of the note from Erica Woodley, the dean of students, which threatened expulsion for rule-breakers:

“The calculation is simple — If you want to have a residential experience at Tulane in the fall, you have to behave differently. This means, no large gatherings (+15 people), and at all times wearing masks in public spaces, practicing social distancing and washing your hands. We are finishing our complete enforcement plan for the fall, but it is clear that this message had to be delivered immediately. DO NOT HOST PARTIES OR GATHERINGS WITH MORE THAN 15 PEOPLE, INCLUDING THE HOST. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL FACE SUSPENSION OR EXPULSION FROM THE UNIVERSITY. All gatherings, of any size, must observe appropriate social distancing and attendees should wear masks. There is no room for error here. People’s lives depend on your adherence to these rules. They aren’t just nameless, faceless people — they are our people.”

And her kicker puts matters quite bluntly:

“Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?”

For Sale: Picture-Book Campus

Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vt

This 155-acre college campus in New England could be yours. Hurry, though. Just a few weeks left to get your bid in to buy the former Green Mountain College campus, in Poultney, Vt. Minimum bid: $3 million. But you should know it was appraised a few years ago for $20 million.

The listing touts the location, just 45 minutes to Lake George, four hours to New York City, and three hours to Montreal. Plus, there are 22 buildings, housing for 650 students, and lots of skiing and hiking trails on and near the property.

Facing declining enrollment and steep debts, the college closed more than a year ago. But don’t limit your imagination to higher-ed on this picturesque property. The auction firm suggests potential other uses: a religious compound, an assisted-living center, or maybe an addiction retreat.

The auction is August 18 on the campus.


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Major Change Could Be Coming for Pennsylvania’s State Universities
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education could go from 14 schools to 11. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Ousted USC president Received $7.7M Payout in Wake of Sex-Abuse, Drug Scandals
When C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California, stepped down in August 2018, he walked away with a compensation package more than three times his normal pay. (USA Today)

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