College campuses face explosion of COVID-19 cases — and challenges to get

The exploding number of new COVID-19 cases on campuses across the country has left many colleges and universities grappling with the same vexing question: How do you get students to cooperate with new safety measures?

While many students appear to be following social distancing guidelines, all too many are breaking the rules and putting their classmates at greater risk.

The University of Alabama reported more than 550 people — the majority of them students — tested positive for the coronavirus since classes began one week ago.

Montclair State University in New Jersey, this week barred 11 students from student housing for two weeks after they were caught partying in the residence halls and at an off-campus bash.

“The vast majority of students are following the rules,” said Andrew Mees, a spokesman for the university. “We are disappointed that a small number chose to disregard these rules and by so doing, to create risk for our campus community.”

Other major universities like Notre Dame, the University of Connecticut, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have all faced outbreaks.

Fraternities and sororities have been identified as the hottest of hot spots, with dozens of students catching the bug and school officials scrambling to shut down their houses and quarantine those infected to keep it from spreading further.

Brian Higgins, an expert on crowd management security at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the problem for universities is two-fold: The students don’t take the COVID-19 threat seriously and the enforcement measures universities are taking don’t have much bite.

A group of incoming freshmen walk through campus at the University of Colorado Boulder on Aug. 18, 2020.Mark Makela / Getty Images

“What they’re doing now is clearly not working,” said Higgins, who previously was chief of police in Bergen County, New Jersey. “In addition to stricter guidelines, I think they need tougher penalties to get the students’ attention. Like, give them a ticket for violating the rules and if they don’t pay they don’t get their grades or they can’t matriculate.”

College students, like the rest of the country, have been feeding on conflicting reports about the severity of the pandemic, Higgins added.

“The problem is college kids don’t take it seriously, they don’t think they’ll get it and if they do it won’t be so bad,” Higgins said.

The pandemic has added to the “incredible amount of complexity that college students have to manage, especially undergraduates living on their own, away from family for the first time,” said Northwestern University psychologist and family therapist Alexandra Solomon.

In many young people, the impulse-control part of the brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25, making students far more susceptible to “risky behavior” and peer pressure, Solomon said.

Additionally, Solomon said, many of the students enter college with “no first-hand experience with people being sick and dying.”

“So to them all of this is very abstract,” she said.

To get students to cooperate and follow the safety protocols, universities need to come up with “a blend of carrots and sticks,” Solomon said.

“Yes, there need to be consequences,” Solomon said, but colleges also need to get students to understand that their behavior can affect the health of their friends.

To stem the coronavirus tide, many of the 5,000 or so colleges and universities in the U.S. are limiting the number of students allowed in dorms and classrooms, requiring testing or proof of a recent test for all arriving students, insisting on mask-wearing in all public areas, and canceling social activities where the virus is more likely to spread.

“Two-year colleges, for instance, are much more likely than four-year colleges to be planning an online fall,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Some schools are also insisting the students sign codes of conduct. But those are just words on a page to many students who have been getting around the restrictions by partying off-campus and at local watering holes, according to numerous published reports.

The situation is so dire in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama, that the city’s mayor shut down bars and restaurants for two weeks.

“The truth is, fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy,” Mayor Walt Maddox said this week.

Then there is the problem of who enforces the rules. Campus police can only do so much, so as The New York Times reported, “day-to-day policing is often falling to teaching assistants and residential advisers who have mixed feelings about confronting scofflaw undergraduates.”

The newspaper highlighted the plight of Jason Chang, a 24-year-old doctoral student at Cornell University, who oversees the undergrads in the dorm where he lives and caught a student who…

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