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Can positive peer pressure keep coronavirus off campus?

Doubtful.

July 8, 2020 8:53 AM
Anjali DasSarma is the summer editorial board intern at The Baltimore Sun.
She is a senior Humanities Scholar in Media and Communication Studies with a minor in Journalism, Editor-in-Chief of The Retriever, as well as a Humanities Senator and a member of the Honors College.

This commentary is from The Baltimore Sun July 6, 2020

As quickly as my Instagram feed swells with people my age gathering together sans masks — grinning, holding drinks and pressing close to one another — it seems the youth COVID-19 rate also rises. Forty-one percent of the total cases of COVID-19 in Maryland, where I live, are people under the age of 39. And my growing frustrations with this increasingly lax approach to social distancing are directly correlated to my concerns about university life this fall, as stay-at-home orders are lifted in states all over the country and people rush to reunite.

When students return to campuses across the nation, there is an implied expectation that they will somehow be eager to enforce one another’s mask-wearing and social distancing. But after watching people of all ages fail to follow through in restaurants, beaches and boardwalks over the past few weeks, as well as on social media, it’s obvious these expectations are unrealistic.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told a Senate committee during a hearing last week that the country is going in the “wrong direction” on social distancing, and he singled out young people in particular.

“It is critical that we all take the personal responsibility to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and embrace the universal use of face coverings,” he said. “Specifically, I’m addressing the younger members of our society, the millennials and the generation Zs — I ask those that are listening to spread the word.”

To Dr. Fauci from a rising senior in college: My experience suggests the social contract of “positive peer pressure” will almost certainly fall flat. Just look at the attempts to rid campuses of binge-drinking or drug use. Or look at this worst case scenario: Young people in Alabama are throwing “coronavirus parties” and giving a cash prize to whomever contracts COVID-19 first.

But if our federal and local governments largely don’t enforce mask wearing, leaving retail and customer service workers to enforce mask policies, why does it make sense to expect students to be policing one another? The expectation that students will see one another engaging in specific “no-no” behaviors and call each other out is impractical, and campuses that expect to enforce a “mask-on” policy have no real way to ensure that students are actually wearing masks properly — if at all.

Administrators at my school, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have said they will require everyone to wear a mask on campus when social distancing isn’t possible, and overall are taking a relatively conservative approach to reopening. Ninety percent of classes will remain online during the fall semester, and housing will be prioritized for those who must be on campus and can’t commute.

I hope to be one of those people. I’m set to become the executive editor of The Retriever, our campus newspaper, in the fall, and need to be on campus for reporting purposes as well as for one of my classes. This raises another concern. Part of the “college experience” is found in social gatherings. In fact, many freshman-year courses have remained in person in order to uphold the bonding opportunities for these students. But I’m more concerned about the time outside the classroom, when there’s no professor around to push mask wearing.

“Even very small rates of contact in large group settings like dining halls or parties may be sufficient to sustain an outbreak on campus regardless of any other protective measures which have been put into place,” professors from Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania wrote in a recent paper about the spread of COVID-19 in the university setting.

From sharing a bathroom with your roommate to grabbing coffee with a classmate, contact in shared spaces throughout campus is nearly inevitable. What do administrators actually know about college students?

The implications of an outbreak on campus are just as disruptive as those in workspaces, causing lost revenue and learning opportunities. And while healthy young people usually suffer less severe disease complications on the whole, they’re not immune from illness and can pass COVID-19 on to others, including professors, who might not fare as well.

There is no easy solution to the issue of reopening college campuses. But universities should stop pretending as though students will begin scolding one another about not wearing masks or throwing parties. Administrators need to be prepared for an inevitable outbreak and likely shutdowns. If post-college age adults can’t follow the rules and social distance, college students are sure to break them, too.

That makes bringing students back on campus, at the most primitive level, a return to normal, even with the stated precautions. As we’ve seen with Gov. Hogan’s decision to drop the stay-at-home order, which inadvertently endorsed “a return to normalcy,” phased reopenings mean almost nothing when the social contract doesn’t exist.


Anjali DasSarma is a rising senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the incoming editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Retriever; and the summer editorial board intern at The Baltimore Sun. Her email address is adassarma@baltsun.com; Twitter: @anjalidassarma.

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