To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some colleges are pursuing a strategy of forbidding students from ever gathering outside of class or ever getting within six feet of one another during the fall semester.
The rules at the University of Notre Dame (where I will be returning in August) are rigid. Do not gather in groups. Stay at least six feet from other people. Do not travel away from campus. Wear a mask at all times except in your own bedroom.
Many of the colleges reopening for the fall semester — about 65 percent of colleges nationwide — are implementing similarly strict standards. The University of Alabama’s reopening plan says that “social distancing measures must be implemented in all university facilities whenever possible.” Other colleges, like the California State University system, will be online for the fall semester, not even giving the students the opportunity to distance in person.
Of course, administrators know that strict social distancing standards will never be reached or maintained. Soon after the semester starts, Notre Dame students will be gathering with their friends, getting within six feet of their significant others, visiting the coffee shops in South Bend, and taking their masks off when walking around campus and throwing frisbees.
There will be nothing administrators can do to stop all of this. College students are highly social, and college presidents understand this. Their strategy is to set the standard as high as possible in hopes that it will lead to some degree of faux social distancing and quarantine play-acting, which will reassure nervous parents and faculty members, mollify scaredy-cat students, and protect themselves from liability.
This unrealistic standard, however, is not the one colleges should pursue for the fall. College administrators should instead follow the example of Tulane University in setting the bar at a realistic level, which may actually be implemented at a residential college.
Doing otherwise will only create a climate of fear and division when the inevitable rule-breaking ensues, with some students sneaking around to break rules and other student tattle-tales running to officious campus bureaucrats to report COVID sinners.
Tulane’s plan for reopening asks students to social distance “as a normal practice.”
Students are advised to limit their contact with the people they encounter while walking around on campus, sitting in the classroom, or attending a performance. Tulane’s strategy does not tell students, however, that they cannot make an exception for their best friends or their boyfriends or girlfriends. Students are to social distance in general, but reasonable exceptions can be made.
Many colleges are also pursuing policies that would forbid all gatherings. For instance, Notre Dame has told students, “Do not gather in groups,” and that extra-curricular activities will take place virtually. It is hard to believe college students, who often live in the same hallway or clusters of rooms as their best friends, would avoid gathering entirely. It’s a proscription so severe it will only result in sneaking around.
Purdue University is another institution whose guidance for gatherings better addresses the reality of the college experience.
“We are committed to fostering an environment that supports [student organization] activities,” says the university’s plan, which also intends to “develop guidelines for event planning that include social distancing protocols and other safe practices.”
Under Purdue’s plan, students can gather together in public spaces that allow for social distancing instead of turning to underground gatherings without oversight. It’s a plan realistic about college students that seeks to meet them where they’re at.
My former professor, Eileen Hunt Botting, wrote to the New York Times arguing that Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins, should reconsider his decision for an in-person semester and put classes online because “lives of members of the community are at stake.”
Setting out the strictest set of rules possible serves only to appease the loudest voices on the margins, like Professor Hunt Botting, even though the majority of the community supports the decision to reopen. The effect of these rules, however, will only be clandestine meetings, secret trips off campus, and forbidden parties. In turn, students’ actions will lead to frayed trust, a divided campus, and a loss of authority.
There need to be protocols to stop the spread of coronavirus at college campuses, but you cannot realistically tell college students they can never go near one another. After all, what is the point of reopening if no one can be together?