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The pandemic is forcing college students to make grave decisions that would have been inconceivable a year ago, and many are operating with minimal guidance.

Although people in their late teens and early twenties with COVID are less likely to contract severe cases and are often asymptomatic, college students around the country are testing positive after suffering from headache, chills, fever, and nausea. And, as they spread the virus amongst themselves, it is all too easy for them to transmit it to people in older, more vulnerable age groups such as campus employees and community residents. As the nation’s colleges and universities set widely varying policies and march to different drummers, students may feel like they are on their own. They’re struggling with their sense of personal responsibility, competing forms of peer pressure, and undoubtedly a sense of thwarted expectations. Sources of realistic advice are scarce, and school administrators are unwilling or unable to provide guidance for managing the “edgier” aspects of campus life.

Student-led COVID safety advice programs such as Oberlin College’s “ObieReal” are still getting off the ground, where they exist at all, but they have a sound philosophy. As Oberlin Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo said, “Telling people only what not to do is not a strategy for long-term behavior change; you have to give people options.” With this in mind, we would like to offer some real-world college social-life tips for the 2020 “COVID-Ed:”

1. ALWAYS Wear Your Mask in Public Spaces

Surgical masks are still considered critical supplies, so you should have at least three cloth masks that you can launder after a day’s use. Find a mask that is as comfortable as possible and stays in place, so you are not tempted to remove it or touch it. Wear your mask whenever you go out: human nature being what it is, you can never assume that other people are going to practice social distancing, let alone maintain it consistently!

2. Protect Your Pod/Bubble

Your campus pod or “bubble” can help preserve your sanity, but if the virus enters your group, you could all get sick. Remind one another to always wear masks and social distance in public spaces, practice good hygiene at all times, and follow the Pod ground rules.

3. Don’t Go to Frat/Sorority Parties

Don’t even think about hitting a Frat or Sorority party. Greek life has served as an incubator for numerous college COVID outbreaks; in fact, the New York Times has identified at least 250 cases of COVID-19 originating in sororities and fraternity houses. Some universities have asked houses to shut down, but they often lack the power to enforce closings. As much as the Greek experience may enrich your life, by attending a gathering at a frat or sorority house you can catch and help spread an illness that has killed an average of 940 people each day in the US since January.

4. Be Smart About Where You Eat

The “freshman 14” used to refer to the weight you can put on during your first semester. In 2020, “freshman 14” may become a reference to the days you spent quarantined in a dorm-from-Hell because you got exposed to COVID. Some colleges have carry-out dining halls, while others continue to offer indoor seating. If your school is among the latter group, they almost certainly have “grab and go” dining options, which are far safer. Instead of dining out at a restaurant, order takeout meals, get deliveries, or use curbside pickup. Visiting a restaurant’s outdoor seating area increases the risk of exposure, but it is safer than eating inside. If you must take the risk of eating in an enclosed space, only do so in an establishment that maintains a six-foot distance between tables (staff should of course be masked).

5. Stay Out of Bars. Please!

Alcohol is always a temptation in college, but drinking during a pandemic—even in a bar that attempts to comply with six-foot distancing—is only a bit safer than playing Russian Roulette (but in a pandemic, you may hit not only yourself but anyone within reach, ranging from friends and family to complete strangers). Bars have been the locus of a number of serious outbreaks. As the night progresses, people talk more loudly (which spreads larger droplets faster and further) and are easily tempted to disregard even moderate social distancing. Infectious disease expert Dr. Sandra Kesh told C-Net that the disinhibiting effects of alcohol should rule out bar visits: “Bars are noisy, so you’re yelling your drink order at the bartender and other people are right by you—it’s really a perfect environment for that shared air space which we get so worried about.”

If you or your friends are reckless enough to give way to social pressure and go out drinking in a bar or a social gathering, there’s no call for being completely irresponsible: wear a mask, and insist on going to a place that serves in an open-air setting and adheres to social distancing. Set a conservative limit on the number of drinks you will have (definitely do not get drunk)! Keep your mask on when not drinking, and if people start shouting, and the management or hosts cannot stop guests from leaning in toward one another, leave immediately. In short, this is the time to embrace the joys of sobriety.

6. Learn to Enjoy the Great Outdoors

While the weather still permits, take your social gatherings outside. Meeting a group of friends to eat, walk, or exercise on campus grounds makes it easier to maintain social distancing, and at daytime gatherings, the ultraviolet light further reduces the danger of transmission and supports your body’s resistance by increasing your vitamin D intake.

7. Reach Out and Tele-Touch Someone

COVID does not have to crush your college social life. FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangouts… you already know ways to get creative with technology. Meeting up with a study group on Zoom can help you hit the books together with fewer distractions. Video apps are great for meeting with friends, and they create a nice safe space for a budding romance: when you’re flirting with someone remotely, they can only ogle what you’re willing to display (and vice versa); you can get to know each other well enough to really be sure whether you’re ready for physical contact; and if things go sour, it’s easy to make a clean break. One Zoom dater’s favorite strategy for a date that’s heading south is, “Oh my gosh, my Wi-Fi went off!”

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Koren Thomas
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