As the number of coronavirus cases surges across the U.S., skepticism is mounting over colleges’ ability to resume campus activity in the fall. Still, as of mid-July, around 55% of colleges were aiming for an in-person fall semester while another 30% were proposing a mix of online and in-person instruction, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the reopening plans of roughly 1,200 U.S. institutions. 

Colleges are modifying their physical spaces to enable a safe return, reconfiguring classrooms and gathering areas, plastering their walkways with social-distance stickers, establishing grab-and-go meal locations and installing plexiglass partitions in libraries. They’re rolling out coronavirus testing and contract-tracing initiatives. And some are postponing fall sports. 

But for those measures to achieve their purpose, colleges will also need to transform how students act and think — to ensure they develop safe and respectful, if unnatural, habits that help prevent the virus from spreading. 

“We’re all investing a great deal and trying to prepare for the return of students,” said David Wippman, the president of Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. “Yet I think all of us are aware that, at the end of the day, we need students to also cooperate with us and to respect the rules that we’re trying to put in place.”

Young people are accounting for a greater share of coronavirus cases in U.S. hotspots, a trend some observers partly attribute to partygoingathletic activities and greek-life gatherings

Pointing to “the much-publicized behavior of students during spring break in Florida,” a recent report prepared for Connecticut’s governor underscores the difficulty of convincing some young people to comply with new “behavioral norms.” Many students, especially young adults, are tired of sheltering in place and are hungry for social interaction. Amid public officials’ ever-changing and inconsistent directives, many students could be confused about the best practices for preventing the virus’s spread. 

Against this backdrop, higher education leaders such as Wippman say top-down, punitive enforcement of the norms is fated to fail. Policing by faculty members and other authority figures can only go so far, if anywhere. Institutions need to instill in students a sense of stewardship and community responsibility, experts argue. And for that mindset to develop organically, schools will need students to help with — if not drive — the development and implementation of pandemic-oriented social contracts. 

“We’re putting in place all these rules,” Wippman said, “but we want the students themselves to be talking to and encouraging each other for everyone’s collective benefit.”

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