As Students Prepare to Return to College This Fall, What’s Safe, and What’s Not?

SPRINGFIELD — It’s a difficult decision to make, and there isn’t much time left. Should my son or daughter head off to college this fall with the coronavirus pandemic still prevalent in communities everywhere?

Some colleges will be offering online classes only, but others are welcoming freshmen and other students to a campus which should look much different than in the past, to protect the student body and staff.

One thing is for sure: college environments are high on social contacts, and large gatherings are prime for the spread of COVID-19. What precautions should be taken in classrooms, dorms, and dining halls at college? Dr. Armando Paez, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center, answers these questions and more.

What questions should parents and students be asking their college about safety before returning to the classroom? It is important to ask your college about the policies and procedures they will implement to promote safe behaviors throughout the college environment, as well as their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For example, you should ask about the college’s policies on students violating preventive measures, such as not wearing face coverings or practicing social distancing. Also, what are the guidelines for teachers and students when calling in sick for class, so that there is no fear of reprisal for not coming to class? How is the cafeteria set up to encourage physical distancing? What modifications have been made in the cleaning and disinfecting procedures of classrooms, toilets, and common places on campus?

What are the biggest risks for students heading off to college? The biggest risk is actually becoming infected with COVID-19 while at college, setting off an outbreak in the dormitories and at home and local communities when leaving campus. It is already known that young individuals can get infected, spread the virus, and they can also become severely ill from COVID-19. The risk increases significantly when students do not follow preventive measures, such as maintaining physical distancing.

What would you advise students about their social life at college? It is best at this time to avoid large gatherings, especially indoors, including bars. It is important to keep informed of new guidelines and recommendations from the college, state, and public-health organizations to protect you.

What considerations should there be if you are sharing a dorm room with someone? In light of what we know about COVID-19 transmission, the current dormitory setup will need to be modified for safety. Most dormitories will likely not be operating at full capacity, and single rooms may be available. However, for those sharing rooms, it is important to follow recommended preventive measures, including face coverings, frequent handwashing, and regular disinfection of shared spaces and commonly touched objects and surfaces. If the student or roommate feels sick, the dormitory administration should be notified immediately, and the protocol for isolation and COVID-19 testing, if suspected, should be followed.

What items should parents consider sending their children off to college with that they might not normally think of? Hand sanitizers and disinfectants approved or known to deactivate SARSCoV2, face coverings or masks, and a thermometer.

What about eating in the college dining hall? If eating in the college dining hall can be avoided, I would recommend you eat elsewhere, especially if necessary precautions have not been taken. Any congregation of individuals, such as in a dining hall, always poses a risk of COVID-19 transmission if just one individual is infected. However, most college dining halls, much like dormitories, likely will be modified in such a way that it will be reasonably safe for students to dine in with physical distancing at least six feet apart as much as possible. Other measures that should be adopted include limiting the number of individuals per table, assigning students specified times to come to the dining hall, use of disposable items, and more ‘grab-and-go’ options.

What would you advise a college student with comorbidities, such as diabetes or pulmonary problems, to do? If online learning is an option, this will be the best alternative for someone with comorbidities. If this is not an option, choose activities at the college that require little physical interaction or gathering. Also, avoid being near individuals who do not have face coverings. I cannot overemphasize strictly following preventive measures, such as frequent handwashing, physical distancing, face coverings, and more. If you feel sick or think you may have COVID-19, contact your healthcare provider within 24 hours and follow the school’s recommendations for those who think they might be sick with COVID-19.

Is living in a fraternity or sorority safe? Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported in fraternities and similar off-campus quarters. Similar to dormitories, these living quarters should have modifications, rules, and regulations to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fraternity and sorority parties have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks and should be avoided.

Can students safely participate in college sports? Yes, I think students can play sports safely following some guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (cdc.gov) has posted guidelines for playing sports. A player who feels sick or believes they may have COVID-19 should not play and alert their coach. In addition to frequent handwashing, there should not be any sharing of equipment. Handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps are discouraged. The risk of contracting COVID-19 increases depending on the physical closeness of the sport and whether competitions involve teams from different geographic areas. Coaches and spectators should wear face coverings, and coaches must decide if players need to wear them.

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