What will social distancing look like for students at colleges and universities this fall?

Expert Insight

What will social distancing look like for students at colleges and universities this fall?

As college and university leaders look to repopulate their campuses this fall, physical distancing protocols (including use of face masks, maintaining six feet of distance from others, and limits on large gatherings) will be crucial to keeping campus safe. While achieving perfect adherence to physical distancing on a college campus is unrealistic, institutions need to do everything they can to maximize compliance among students. 

In early June, EAB surveyed about 70 institutions on their plans to promote and enforce physical distancing on campus. Here are the three trends we uncovered.

Trend #1: Majority of institutions will provide students with COVID-19 safety kits for the fall

67%

Percentage of institutions that will provide students with COVID-19 safety kits
Percentage of institutions that will provide students with COVID-19 safety kits

College and universities will be asking a lot of students this fall: avoid large events, maintain physical distancing, wear a face covering, and more. Providing students with materials they need to successfully adhere to these protocols helps lighten the lift. Two-thirds (67%) of institutions we surveyed will provide students with COVID-19 safety/welcome kits. The most common items provided will be face masks (96% of those providing kits), educational information about social distancing (80%) and hand sanitizer (71%). Another item worth considering is a contactless door opener and button-presser to discourage germ spread.

While many institutions’ reopening plans include symptom monitoring and regular temperature checks for students, just 27% of institutions providing kits will include thermometers. If students don’t have easy access to thermometers, it will be more difficult for them to quickly notice and report symptoms.

Trend #2: Using the power of positive influence to educate and promote physical distancing among students

When we asked about measures to promote social distancing education and awareness upon students’ return to campus, some of the most common responses included social norming campaigns on social media, regular campus-wide communications from senior leaders, and leveraging student leaders or campus influencers to promote distancing. This tells us that institutions are focusing on the power of positive influence.

While many student affairs leaders have raised the possibility of developing trainings around physical distancing in conversations with EAB, only 42% of respondents said they are considering developing mandatory or optional educational modules for students on physical distancing.

Using physical markings is another surefire measure to promote distancing (click through for sample materials from Georgetown, Montana State, Elon, and Harvard).

Which of the following measures are you considering to promote social distancing education and awareness upon students’ return to campus?

Which of the following measures are you considering to promote social distancing education and awareness upon students' return to campus?

Trend #3: Ensuring student compliance with physical distancing remains an open question

Forty percent of institutions report that they are planning to ask students to sign a pledge or agreement to uphold physical distancing when they arrive on campus. Purdue University has cited the Protect Purdue pledge as a key component in successful repopulation, and Virginia Tech is including a behavior agreement as part of their housing contract.

However, asking students to agree to comply with physical distancing guidelines is only part of the challenge. The thornier and more complex issue is what to do when students fail or refuse to follow the guidance. We discovered far more uncertainty and many open questions around the viability of enforcing physical distancing protocols. Only 17% of respondents are updating their code of conduct to incorporate physical distancing or quarantine guidelines, but we may see that change: 37% are considering making changes and 11% were unsure. Some institutions will use existing conduct policies to enforce COVID-related safety protocols on campus. 

Respondents considering changes to their conduct code reported a wide range of plans for sanctions: From none at all, to referring students for additional education and coaching, to banning students from campus for two weeks for repeated non-compliance, it’s clear that there’s no consensus about the best way to manage non-compliance.

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