Universities across the nation are taking a calculated risk to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We are already seeing the impact of these decisions: outbreaks on college campuses, students quarantined in their rooms for weeks, campus shutdowns and increased rates of community spread in college towns. While upsetting, these outcomes are hardly surprising given the continued rise of COVID-19 cases across the United States.
Presidents of universities ecstatically announce their plans to reopen, sending e-mails that say they are overjoyed to welcome their students back. But these always include a caveat: “This reopening is only possible if our student body is fully dedicated to the safety procedures that we’ve put in place.”
This language of personal responsibility and moral coercion is used to take the pressure off university administrations and transfer the responsibility for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks to individual students.
Many schools whose campuses are reopening have enacted strict, no-partying rules with the threat of consequences as serious as suspension or expulsion. In addition to these new policies, colleges are requiring students to sign disclaimers and waivers acknowledging that they understand that by returning to campus they risk contracting COVID-19 — despite university efforts to slow the spread.
These policies and waivers are another way of absolving university administrations of responsibility when outbreaks occur. (Heidi Li Feldman, a professor of law at Georgetown University, wrote a commentary urging students not to sign these waivers.)
Although individual behaviors are important during a pandemic, it is unrealistic to expect college students to always make the best informed and most conscientious decisions. It is a well-supported fact that college students are statistically more likely to take risks due to their age. The area of the brain connected to judgment and decisionmaking is the prefrontal cortex, which is often not fully developed until people are 24 to 25 years old.
In short, some of the decisions that college students make when they are welcomed back on campus will inevitably lead to the increased spread of COVID-19. The point is not to condone those behaviors, but to highlight the unnecessary risks college administrators take when they choose to reopen campuses.
Administrations are setting students up for failure by reopening, and the consequences, both for the individual and the community, are severe.
Colleges didn’t invent the idea of blaming students for spreading COVID-19 — the most prominent mainstream narrative of the pandemic is that individuals (especially young people) are to blame for contracting and spreading the virus. Unfortunately, as morally satisfying as it is to convince ourselves that the more careful we are, the less likely we are to contract or spread the virus, the reality is that COVID-19 is incredibly contagious.
Some people get sick because they go to bars in big groups, but others get sick because they go to the grocery store alone, wearing a mask. In the same vein, students will get sick, regardless of how closely they follow reopening plans. And if the only message they get from their schools is that COVID-19 is spread by reckless behavior, then when students do get sick, they may be embarrassed and less likely to come forward to get tested, and will spread the virus to peers.
Of course, there is still room to encourage individuals to make decisions that are proven to slow the spread of the disease. Clearly, students (and all of us) should be practicing social distancing and wearing masks. Individual choices are important, but they only tell a fraction of the story. The responsibility to slow the spread of the virus is shared between individuals and institutions.
We must not ignore that larger institutions have the power to prevent college students from being in the position to make life or death decisions in the first place. We must hold these institutions accountable for the sickness and death that result from the decisions that they are making rather than placing sole responsibility on 18-year-olds.
Rachael Mills, of St. Paul, is a public health educator at a state university. Natasha Stark, of Ankeny, Iowa, is an undergraduate student and residential adviser at a Big Ten University.