“We know there are new expectations to follow now, but to be together we need to work together for the safety of all in our campus community,” the public university states in a housing contract rewritten to meet the pandemic moment.
Those who don’t sign it won’t get a bed on campus. Those who flout the rules face possible eviction.
Welcome to the weird new reality of campus life under a public health crackdown.
As more colleges and universities announce how and when they will resume operations — following the abrupt shutdowns of March — most are making clear that students will share in the duty of protecting classmates, faculty and staff from a contagious disease that has killed more than 100,000 Americans.
Virginia Tech appealed to its motto — Ut Prosim, Latin for “That I may serve” — when it announced this week that it would start the fall term in late August with students in Blacksburg. Some classes will be held in person, others online and still others in hybrid fashion. Officials are counting on students to do the right things as the school year unfolds.
Ashley Hobbs, 21, a Virginia Tech senior, is skeptical. “They’re putting a lot of responsibility on students,” Hobbs said. “Which some are going to take very seriously. But others are going to say, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ ” She said she is likely to start the fall taking classes remotely at her home in Frederick County, Md. How many of the school’s 35,000 students will choose that route remains unknown.
Many universities are warning students to expect a new normal. Parties will be minimal or nonexistent, if schools have their way. Seating at sports events will be limited, if spectators are allowed at all. Many lectures will be online. Food service will be grab-and-go. Foot traffic will be routed one way through specific exits and entrances. Coronavirus testing will be widespread, with quarantines expected for those who test positive. In many places, face-to-face instruction will end by Thanksgiving.
And the rules, school officials say, will be rules. The University of Colorado at Boulder is even revising its code of conduct to include a mandate that its 36,000 students follow coronavirus-related public health rules on and off campus.
The University of Virginia, with 24,000 students, will distribute “Welcome Back Kits” in drawstring bags to those who return to Charlottesville. Each bag will contain two cloth face coverings, two bottles of hand sanitizer and an L-shaped “touch tool” for students to open doors and push elevator buttons without direct contact.
Similar kits at Purdue University will include a thermometer for daily temperature taking. The school, which has about 44,000 students in West Lafayette, Ind., will ask them for “a commitment to at least a semester of inconvenience” to protect faculty and staff.
“I will urge students to demonstrate their altruism by complying, but also challenge them to refute the cynics who say that today’s young people are too selfish or self-indulgent to help us make this work,” Purdue President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. told senators this month in a hearing on campus reopening plans. Daniels also said the university will order a “10-foot minimum” distance between students and professors in classrooms, and it is buying more than a mile of plexiglass for barriers to separate students from faculty and staff.
Many faculty are skeptical that colleges can engineer a massive shift in behavior among students who would be returning to campus after months at home in semi-isolation, starved of social contact.
“You tell them, ‘You can’t hang out, you can’t party, you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ — for the whole academic year? It sounds like wishful thinking,” said Stan Yoshinobu, a math professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. In May, Yoshinobu wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education on fall plans amid the pandemic. Its headline: “The Case Against Reopening.”
He sees challenges in even a seemingly simple mandate — that students wear face masks in public settings. Suppose a student doesn’t wear a mask in the classroom. “What do you do as an instructor?” he said. “Call campus police? Kick them out?”
Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo is part of the 482,000-student California State University System, which announced last month that it would open in the fall with mostly remote instruction. But many colleges are pushing in the opposite direction, telling students they will be welcome back on campus. Skeptics say the reopening push is directly related to pressures colleges face to collect revenue and fears that enrollment could plummet in an online-only environment.
But higher education leaders, mindful that health and safety are paramount issues, are seeking to strike a tone of caution at schools large and small.
At 37,000-student George Mason University in Northern Virginia, interim president Anne Holton warned: “Face coverings will be required for everyone in all public areas — including classrooms.” At 1,800-student Trinity Washington University, just 9 percent of classes will be delivered entirely face-to-face, and students who live on the D.C. campus will be limited to one per room.
Like other large public universities, Virginia Tech faces the complex challenge of protecting a community of tens of thousands. It said Monday that it would offer beds on campus to about 9,100 students, 12 percent fewer than normal, setting aside hundreds of rooms for quarantines if needed. It’s a big switch from a year ago, when Virginia Tech was packing students into residence halls because of an unexpected enrollment surge and using hotel rooms to accommodate the overflow.
The university also said this week on Twitter that it will not offer meal plans to students who live off campus, signaling that dining halls will be far more regimented than normal. But officials are wary of being perceived as heavy-handed.
“We’re calling on our students and community to care for the whole,” said Frank Shushok Jr., Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs. “At the end of the day, that’s going to be more effective, and in some ways, it is the kind of education we’re trying to deliver. It’s not about you. It is about the greater good.”
Shushok said the university plans to have ultraclean bathrooms and will encourage students to stay outdoors as much as possible when they socialize. He wouldn’t rule out recreational sports, but suggested there may be restrictions. On the basketball court, for instance, competitions of HORSE, the shot-making game, might be more likely than three-on-three tournaments. Over and over, Shushok said, he tells students and parents: “The residential experience in the fall is not a return to normal. It is not a return to what you knew. You’re going to have to recalibrate your thinking altogether.”
How students will react is anyone’s guess.
Seif Eteifa, 26, a graduate student in civil engineering who is also a teaching assistant, said he worries that undergraduates will ignore public health rules and guidelines. “When everyone likes to party and have some fun and enjoy college life, it’s very difficult to maintain social distancing in my opinion,” Eteifa said. More and more, he said, students are longing “for the days before coronavirus.”
But others predict students will be grateful to be back on campus and happy to make small sacrifices to protect vulnerable populations.
“Students really have that in the forefront of their minds,” said Chapman Pendery, 21, a senior from Atlanta who is vice president of the student government. “It’s less of an attitude of ‘You can’t do this,’ but rather a ‘We can do this.’ It’s something we’re all working together to do. In the end, you can still talk to people. You can still see people. It’s a much better experience than an online semester.”