Like millions of Americans, we students have had our lives turned upside down by COVID-19. As we anticipated a return to campus at our college over the summer, the biggest question was: How do we enjoy the social aspect of college during a global pandemic?
In recent months, we’ve seen many colleges adopt a strict approach to get students to follow the rules, and mitigate the risk of campus outbreaks, like suspending students for attending a party or ignoring COVID-19 safeguards. But it’s hard to expect us to come back to campus, be locked in our rooms, and not talk to anyone or socialize at all. And punishing college kids for socializing can be harmful and ineffective.
We’ve tried doing things differently at Beloit College, a liberal arts school in Wisconsin. And even though our state is a coronavirus hot spot, we’ve (so far) avoided disaster.
Our faculty and administration realized that they don’t experience campus life the same way as students do, and telling college students not to party or to ban everything wouldn’t be safe—or realistic. Instead, it would lead to gatherings that would be very secretive, unregulated, and probably take place inside, without masks.
They understood that students needed to be part of the process to help redefine expectations on campus. That’s where we came in.
Starting in June, the two of us—as leaders of the Beloit Student Government–and a group of other students got to work. We had honest conversations about how and where people would have social gatherings and parties, rather than pretending they wouldn’t happen at all.
The group included student representatives from various aspects of campus life—including Greek Life, athletics, resident assistants, clubs and more—to help ensure a trickle-down effect to all members of our student body.
The result was a Student Statement of Culture, with an addendum with detailed Behavioral Expectations for life on campus. It outlines how we, as students, can mitigate the risk of COVID-19 while still hosting gatherings, participating in activities, drinking, traveling, and even dating.
As an example, while parties are traditionally hosted inside, our guidelines outline that all gatherings should be outside as much as possible and allow for physical distancing. The college even created outdoor gathering spaces, with tents and heat lamps, to accommodate these recommendations.
It is also the responsibility of the party host and guests, whether it's planned or impromptu, to model the College’s COVID-19 protective practices and encourage them to be followed. These include occupancy rules, ensuring that drinks aren’t being shared, and remaining six feet apart when removing your face covering to eat or drink.
At clubs, organizations, meetings, and other larger social gatherings, contact tracing must occur—and a plan must be laid out to ensure that large groups of people are not entering or exiting the space at once.
We also included advice on other activities that are frowned upon during these socially distanced times.
For instance, while continuing to see friends and significant others who live off campus is permitted, students recognize that they are exposing themselves to a level of risk and must engage in protective practices whenever possible to ensure the health of others.
Some slip-ups have occurred. If a student is not following the rules, we hold each other accountable. We tell each other when another student is not adhering to our protective practices and makes us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, this may also mean reporting another student.
But we know our college—and other institutions—can only operate in-person if all members of the community are invested in creating a culture where you follow the rules.
We’ve been fortunate to be on campus, with a mix of both in-person and online classes, since September, when many college campuses nationwide remain closed. And we believe our efforts have been a major reason why our campus has stayed open.
As we see COVID-19 spikes around the country, and especially in Wisconsin, we’re reporting very few or zero new positive COVID-19 cases daily. Our fellow students are really paying attention and doing everything possible to keep everyone safe.
A lot of this lands on our shoulders. The behavior of each individual has the potential to negatively impact the whole community.
That’s why the fundamental principle behind this initiative is “self-care is community care,” which means we must individually take care of ourselves by wearing masks and social distancing, among other protective guidelines.
When we do this, we keep ourselves and the entire community safe.
Hopefully, we serve as a national example to other schools of how college kids can still be kids—even during a global pandemic.