Sept. 4, 2020 -- On Aug. 10, University of Georgia senior Jessica Martin rang in her 21st birthday with a “miniature party” -- a mobile order from a local liquor store and a quiet gathering with her roommate and two close friends at her apartment near campus.
In pre-COVID days, it would have looked much different, she says. Martin’s friends would have likely made her 21st birthday signs -- maybe in the shape of Texas, her home state -- and a large group would have headed in a festive gaggle downtown to bar hop.
“We’re missing out on the traditional aspects of college,” Martin says. “It takes a toll on people. Everyone is just so desperate to get back to a normal environment.”
Martin has been playing it safe for the sake of her own health and that of the student population. But other students are not. The University of Georgia is one of several universities that has already seen an alarming number of coronavirus cases. The university reported 821 positive COVID-19 tests after the first week of school, which started Aug. 20. Of those, 798 were students, 19 were staff, and four were faculty.
Like many other university administrators, those at UGA are putting the onus on students to prevent the spread -- an approach both students and experts say creates mixed messages after inviting students back on campus in the first place.
“The rise in positive student tests last week is concerning,” said a statement from UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “It is critically important that all of our students continue to make every effort to prioritize their health and safety by taking the proper steps to avoid exposure to this virus.”
Bars downtown in Athens, GA, are still packed, with no masks in sight, Martin says. And Greek life is “still very much alive.” But she wonders: What did the university expect? Aside from some classes that have gone online, students are told to go to class as usual.
“I wish the administrators would take some accountability,” Martin says. “They’re putting us in a situation where we have to be interacting every day. You can’t expect a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds to stay isolated.”
Many universities have taken punitive action -- Syracuse University suspended 23 students after a gathering on the Quad. The University of South Carolina suspended several Greek Life organizations for COVID-19 safety violations.
In an open letter to students, Mike Haynie, PhD, Syracuse vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, addressed what he called the “selfish and reckless behavior” of students who gathered.
“Make no mistake, there was not a single student who gathered on the Quad last night who did not know and understand that it was wrong to do so. Instead, those students knowingly ignored New York State public health law and the provisions of the Syracuse University Stay Safe Pledge.”
But the “shame and blame” have been unfairly placed on the students, who are going through the pandemic at an important stage of their lives, says Gary Sachs, MD, a Harvard University psychiatrist.
For students, keeping social connections is crucial, he says. And universities are telling students that it is safe to return to campus, while they’re also punishing them for engaging in normal campus activities.
“The idea the universities are going to punish them when they invited them, that's a headscratcher to me,” Sachs says. “That's displacing blame onto the unit that's least responsible.”
College years are a time defined by milestones and relationships, he says, not to mention levels of hormones that are not just high, but rapidly changing. And, he says, a universal human trait is the tendency to develop even more of a temptation to do something that’s discouraged.
“That’s a perversity of the human mind,” Sachs says. But “I think the mixed messaging is much more likely to be at the heart of the problem.”
And although the pandemic is a threat to physical health, behaviors that help avoid infection can take a massive toll on mental health -- especially for younger people.
According to a CDC report, which uses data from 5,412 adults in the U.S. surveyed between June 24 and 30, as many as one in four people ages 18-24 seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before the survey because of pandemic-related issues.
“I would say no one here is as happy as they were last year,” says George Diebel, a sophomore at Hamilton College in New York. Campus police make rounds at night to ensure no gatherings are taking place, he says. “There was one bigger gathering last weekend, and some people got sent home. There’s definitely the fear of being punished.”
Though campus life is bleak right now, he says he thinks the threat of being sent home has been effective.
Charlie Hunter, a sophomore at the University of Kentucky -- which has over 460 active cases -- says there is also a fear that he will be exposed to COVID-19 and sent home to spread it to his family.
“We have grandparents we’ve been trying to see for a while,” he says. “There's definitely a worry something will happen. Right now, we're just happy for every day we get on campus.”
Sachs said administrators, rather than taking a punitive approach, should tackle the issue "as a human engineering problem." Not only should students be told to follow the rules themselves, but they should also be encouraged to hold other students accountable. He referenced "The Checklist Manifesto" by Dr. Atul Gwande, a book that discusses the overwhelming drop in deaths when nurses call out doctors for their missteps.
"I would recommend rather than deciding who's to blame, get people to have concordance with the appropriate procedures, and also explicitly inviting feedback from their peers and faculty," Sachs said. "A lot of times people just get angry when they observe non-compliance, but if people take the time to remind each other, that would lead to a far higher rate of compliance."