For the media

Should college students be on campus?

By Jen Spengler | September 2, 2020
Two college students study on campus wearing masks

By Jennifer Spengler, a health and wellness writer for Sharp Health News and a marketing specialist with Sharp HealthCare.

My 18-year-old daughter is a freshman at a university in Ohio. Unfortunately, she’s currently taking all of her classes from her bedroom in Southern California via video. This is because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her college — and colleges across the country — to determine the best way to deliver an education while ensuring that everyone on campus and in the surrounding community remains safe from potential infection and illness.

While my heart aches for my daughter and all young adults whose post-high school plans have been delayed or thwarted by the effects of the spreading coronavirus, I understand that colleges have been faced with extremely difficult choices.

Do they hold all classes remotely and risk the loss of tuition, room and board fees, possibly leading to financial ruin? Or do they potentially risk the health of students, faculty, staff and campus neighbors by allowing students to live on campus and take in-person classes in order to provide the expected level of education, return some normalcy to their lives, and decrease the mental health risks of social isolation inherent to online learning?

While colleges are trying to answer these difficult questions, parents and students have a few of their own:

  • Can colleges provide adequate infection precautions, COVID-19 testing and quarantine care (if needed)?

  • Can young people be trusted to strictly follow preventive measures to slow the spread of COVID-19?

  • Is a virtual education worth the same — often substantial — investment as an in-person, on-campus education?

And these questions mark just the tip of the iceberg. My head swirls — mostly in the middle of the night — with questions and concerns about how safe and smart it is for my daughter to head to her school’s campus, especially as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the area, thanks in part to a few illicit social gatherings. This is college, after all.

So, wholly exhausted by my near constant state of pandemic-related anxiety and fear of the unknown, I reached out to Dr. Matthew Messoline, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, to get to the root of some of the most common concerns surrounding whether college students should be on campus. Here, he answers my top questions.

Q&A with a medical expert on attending college during COVID-19

What are the greatest concerns about college campuses reopening during the pandemic?

I think the biggest worry is the thought of larger groups of young people gathering in a social setting, which creates a higher risk for spread of the disease. This also puts faculty and staff at greater risk if an institution chooses to hold some form of in-person classes.

Can we trust college students to follow the guidelines?

I think the majority of young adults can be trusted to follow the guidelines. But unfortunately, it only takes a few violators to create enough of a problem to close down in-person classes, residential housing and other campus activities.
This age group is extremely dependent on peer social interaction, and college provides an opportunity for them to come together in an unfamiliar setting. Unfortunately, this is difficult to accomplish in the current socially distanced environment and students may find it hard to stick to group size limits and social distancing rules. The good news is that compliance for mask wearing can be more easily enforced in this age group, as compared with school-age children.

What needs to happen for a return to campus to be safe?

Most states have released guidelines for reopening in-person learning and on-campus living. These guidelines are based on a specific area’s case rate and the ability to test and respond to outbreaks. Colleges must comply with the guidelines to ensure a safe return.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines several considerations for colleges, including the following:

  • Typical residential college housing is dense, so may need to be modified. Ventilation in housing and learning facilities should also be addressed.

  • Efficient testing with contact tracing would help to limit outbreaks if they presented.

  • Student access to quarantine care and facilities can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

  • Access to supplies, such as face masks and hand hygiene stations, along with posted reminders of precautions will help ensure adherence to guidelines.

  • Spaces throughout campus may need to be modified to allow distancing of 6 feet between individuals. Some communal areas may need to be closed or restricted.

  • Food service options can be revised to offer more grab-and-go opportunities.

  • Modifying or replacing campus and community events with virtual gatherings or meetings can help decrease virus transmission.

  • Limiting campus access to current students, faculty and staff can help reduce risk of spread both on campus and in the surrounding community.

What supplies should students bring with them in case of COVID-19 exposure or infection?
Basic medications, such as acetaminophen and cough medicine, along with oral rehydration salts, a thermometer and a portable pulse oximeter can all be extremely valuable if someone comes down with a case of COVID-19, but does not fall ill enough to require urgent care or hospital evaluation. Having extra masks and hand sanitizer would also be essential for any in-person learning and residential housing.

Some colleges are suggesting that students pack a “quarantine go bag” in case they are exposed to someone with COVID-19 or become ill and must quarantine with little or no advance notice. The bag should hold health insurance information, comfortable clothes and pajamas, undergarments, slippers, toiletries, extra prescription medications, hand sanitizer, face masks, laptop, school supplies, digital device chargers, snacks, bottled water and hydration drinks.

Which students may want to consider participating exclusively in online learning?

Certainly students with any history of congenital heart disease, childhood cancer, moderate to severe asthma, diabetes and even young smokers could be at higher risk for complications and should exercise caution with any in-person activities on campus.
Students who might occasionally or daily be returning home from campus should also consider the health risks of others within their household.

What steps can students take to stay healthy and slow the spread of COVID-19?

All students must follow their school’s guidelines and know the risks to both their health and their standing at the school if they disregard them. Some colleges have already suspended students for ignoring precautions, and others threaten eviction from school housing, loss of scholarship and expulsion.

Otherwise, I suggest that students frequently disinfect their phone, laptop and commonly touched surfaces in their room; refrain from sharing items, such as food, drinks and utensils; and avoid crowds and large gatherings, especially indoors. Of course, it shouldn’t have to be said that they should practice social distancing, regularly wash their hands and wear an effective face covering when within 6 feet of others.

Jen Spengler is a health and wellness writer with Sharp Health News, and mother of three daughters.

You might also like:

Get the best of Sharp Health News in your inbox

Our weekly email brings you the latest health tips, recipes and stories.