Foss: College reopenings doomed to fail

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Categories: Opinion

Is this really going to work? 

That’s all I can think whenever I so much as glance at college reopening plans, which describe how schools plan to bring students back for classes while also keeping them safe from COVID-19. Protocols vary, but schools will generally require masks and social distancing, and limit the number of people in classrooms, residence halls, libraries and other spaces. 

On the whole, these plans are sober-minded, detailed, thoughtful … and completely unrealistic. 

Reading them, I’m struck by how much hinges upon college students not behaving like college students. 

Have the people who developed these plans ever been to a college? Visited a dorm? Eaten in a dining hall? Spent time with real, live college students? 

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The traditional residential college is a place where it’s hard to be by yourself, and that’s by design. 

Students live together, eat together, walk to class together and go to parties together. They study together and join clubs together. I’m sure I was alone at some point during my four years of college, but in my memories I’m surrounded by friends, even at the most mundane and banal of moments.

Consider me skeptical that an inherently social experience can be remade into something more akin to a silent retreat, where students, appropriately spaced, spend their days reading, sipping water and quietly walking to class by themselves.   

If the reopening plans have one giant flaw, it’s that they fail to adequately account for student behavior and how hard it can be to control. They’re premised on the idea that college students will recognize the need for precautions and adjust. 

It’s an optimistic assumption, and a dubious one. 

It flies in the face of everything we know about college students, and the risks they take. 

Not all college students, of course. 

Many, I’m sure, are perfectly capable of social distancing, wearing masks and scaling back campus activity. 

I’m not concerned about those students. 


I’m concerned about the ones who are ignoring public health guidelines, going to parties and fueling the increase in infections we’re seeing in people between the ages of 20 to 29, like the ones who attended the massive backyard July 4th party in Albany that drew 200 college-age students and has now been linked to at least 30 COVID-19 infections. School isn’t even in session.

What will happen when it is? 

Just last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged twenty-somethings to take the virus more seriously, saying, “This is not the time to fight for your right to party” — an admonishment that only served to remind me of all the beer-soaked college parties I attended where the hit Beastie Boys song was played at top volume while students danced and belted out the lyrics. 

Are we really supposed to believe college students aren’t going to behave this way come fall? 

Or that college activity exists in a bubble, confined to college campuses? 

As an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education observed, students are spreading COVID-19 off-campus, where they come into contact with a wide range of people, some of whom might be vulnerable to more severe cases of the disease. 

According to the article, “… at the University of California at Berkeley, a spike in COVID-19 cases was traced to off-campus parties and fraternity houses, prompting administrators to warn students that a return to campus was looking unlikely. This week, they announced that the beginning of the semester will be fully remote.” 

Consider me super-duper skeptical that fraternities can be trusted to scale back their parties and behave responsibly during a pandemic. 

That’s about as likely as the colleges publicly admitting their sober-minded reopening plans are not grounded in reality, and that by bringing thousands of students back to campus, they’re putting people at risk. 

Most colleges and universities will reopen under a hybrid model, with some students studying remotely and others on campus. 

Faced with surging infections in their communities, some schools have rolled back their reopening and opted to teach students remotely. 

That’s a bummer for students who will miss out on the residential college experience, but it’s the right thing to do, and I expect we’ll eventually see colleges and universities in the Capital Region cancel in-person classes, too. 

Their plans for reopening are comprehensive and well-intentioned, but also doomed to fall.

Because college students are going to be college students, and no number of rules, restrictions and guidelines will change that inconvenient truth. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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