Fall 2020 College Return: Navigating the “New Normal”

Fall 2020 has arrived and it is likely nothing that you expected your college experience to be.

After months of uncertainty, universities are returning to campus, converting to online, or some hybrid blend of the two. If you keep up with Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or just the general news, you know that for those colleges attempting an in-person or hybrid format, there is still uncertainty about how to move forward with COVID-19 testing, liability waivers, classroom layouts and instruction, dorm life, cafeteria layouts, etc. And even if your college or university is confident in their approach to the campus reopening plan, students returning are still adjusting to wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet distance from their peers.

I cannot even begin to claim any sort of expertise in regard to what you should expect moving forward, but I can tell you that it is highly likely that classes will again be moved fully-online within the next month, if your particular college or university has not yet done so. Even with testing, following health standards and regulations by wearing masks and maintaining distance, we are (perhaps unsurprisingly) seeing what is being referred to as “clusters” of COVID-19 cases popping up at universities that just recently reopened – particularly in dorms, fraternity/sorority houses, and other student housing on- and off-campus.

The most recent and reported example of this is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will be moving to remote learning starting tomorrow.

(Note that Notre Dame just suspended in-person class as I am writing this.)

Of course, the general response from all sides has been one of frustration. It is pretty safe to assume at this point that no university reopening plan was going to be well-received by everyone, but in this author’s humble opinion: though it is understandably disappointing, especially for students, a remote classroom learning model is the safest option for everyone (faculty, student, staff, and administrators alike). I also think it’s equally safe to say that no one is surprised that these COVID-19 clusters are occurring. It seems a bit naive to think that young people away from home in close proximity to other young people are not going to attend gatherings and have a good time with a disregard for health and safety regulations. The social aspect of higher education is just as relevant to the in-person college experience as attending class. If students are going to be allowed to return to campus then it is inevitable that those students are going to interact with one another and, in all likelihood, be in contact with at least one student who is infected with COVID-19, thus initiating the spread.

(If anyone is uncertain as to how infectious diseases spread and would like an accurate visual depiction, I suggest watching the movie Contagion.)

But since I am not here to implement scare-tactics to encourage you to consider moving to fully online classes, which is my personal and profession recommendation, I will give you some advice for how to move forward with in-person learning and on-campus living that will minimize your risk of catching and/or spreading the virus:

(1) Wear a mask. For your safety and for the safety of others, when you are outside of your dorm room or the cafeteria, wear your mask. Most universities are mandating this, but have limited ways of enforcing it. That said, just because you may be able to get away with not wearing a mask without negative repercussions, it is the safe, smart, and responsible thing to do for yourself and others.

(2) Maintain 6 Feet Distance. This is a hard one even for me. When I walk to Starbucks with my coworkers, I rarely think twice about being next to them. I understand that when you are with your friends the last concern is whether you or they are infected. But try to maintain distance for your and their safety.

(3) Sanitize/Wash Your Hands. According to healthline.com, we touch our face an average of 16 times per hour. That equates a lot of opportunity for you to spread infection from contaminated surfaces to yourself – so wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and/or use an at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

(4) Sanitize your space. Most colleges and universities are disinfecting classrooms daily, but in my opinion, it is important to keep your desk space clean. If you have them, bring antibacterial wipes with you to class and wipe down your desk area. (Note that many colleges are also providing wipes.) In a pinch, use your hand sanitizer.

(5) If you or someone you have been in contact with has been diagnosed with COVID-19: Quarantine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should quarantine at home for 14 days and avoid contact with others.

(6) If you cough or sneeze, try to do so in a tissue and throw it away.

For more information on these tips, please check out the CDC website.

Additional suggestions to the more common ones listed above are:

(7) If you are not feeling well or around anyone not feeling well: Quarantine. Work with your college and/or individual instructors to see if you can utilize remote learning for a week or two while you quarantine as a safety precaution. Trust me, if you tell a faculty member that you are not feeling well and do not want to chance coming to class, he/she will most likely appreciate your concern for him/her as well as your fellow peers, and will accommodate you as much as possible.

(8) If available to you, get tested frequently. A baseline test is a good starting place, but ultimately not very helpful if you are in constant contact with people on- or off-campus. I would personally suggest testing every couple of weeks at least, but some colleges have implemented required testing every two days, which I think is preferable. Even if it is not a requirement of your particular college, I personally recommend testing often.

(9) Avoid traveling. Many colleges are implementing travel restrictions, but I personally suggest you avoid going back home to visit your family and friends with any amount of frequency. Stay on campus or around campus for the duration of your semester. This helps not only protect your family/friends from possible exposure, but also helps prevent you potentially returning to campus and infecting your roommates, friends, professors, etc.

I realize it is not realistic to expect you to not engage with your peers or not occasionally visit home, but please do so safely and responsibly for yourself, for them, and for your faculty and college staff.

Be safe. Be smart. Be responsible. And try to make the most of your college experience, despite this unfortunate circumstance.

Regardless, I wish you a successful, happy, and healthy semester!

Your Academic Advisor