Are students ready to return to campus in the fall?

Many say yes, but with caveats, found a nationwide survey of college and university students. Their responses can help campus leaders in planning for reopening.

One of the biggest decisions campus leaders currently face is whether to resume in-person classes and activities on their campuses this fall. Even if they choose to do so, they face additional considerations. How much to resume and what precautions to take? Will all activities resume as normal? Will social distancing limit class sizes? Will students be allowed to cheer on their peers in football stadiums? These questions are inherently an assessment of risk and people’s tolerance for it. As long as Covid-19 continues to spread without the availability of a vaccine, campuses face risks to individual and public health.

Campus leaders must also consider the possible disconnect between institutional decisions about risk and undergraduates’ attitudes about risk. Adolescents and young adults are at a stage of their lives when they are willing to assume greater levels of health-related risks than older adults, which is rooted in a well-documented “optimism bias” within this age group.

In March, a 22-year old spring-breaker in Miami famously flouted early social distancing guidelines and admitted his nonchalance about it in a TV interview by saying, “If I get corona, I get corona.” Despite their optimism and tendency to engage in risky behavior, college students demonstrate a high level of trust in medical professionals, whose steadfast messages about the risks associated with Covid-19 have penetrated the media platforms that students in this age group also trust.

We conducted a nationwide survey of college and university students from a range of institution types during the week of May 18. We wanted to know:

  • How seriously are college and university students taking the risks associated with the Covid-19 outbreak?
  • How is the pandemic affecting their readiness to return to campus in the fall?
  • What factors might be affecting their willingness to return?
  • And what advice, requests, and expectations do students have for campus leaders?

We collected 976 responses from students between the ages of 18 and 25 at 491 institutions and in 47 states. Seventy-six percent of respondents are undergraduates (24% are graduate students). Two-thirds of institutions represented are public (one-third are private), and about one-quarter are two-year institutions (three-quarters are four-year schools). We are sharing preliminary findings to help inform the many campus leaders across the country and world faced with these critical decisions in a rapidly changing landscape.

Student health concerns

We first asked whether students had ever tested positive for Covid-19. Overall, 95% of students surveyed had not tested positive for Covid-19 (we do not know how many had been tested at all, regardless of result). We then asked whether someone close to them had ever tested positive for Covid-19. Nineteen percent responded yes, 74% responded no, and 7% responded that they were not sure.

Next, we asked students about their level of concern about the risks to their health from Covid-19. Overall, 59% are concerned about the risks. Two subsets of the sample expressed a level of concern that differed more widely from the overall average. For the small number of respondents who already tested positive for Covid-19 (51 students), only 49% of them are concerned. For respondents who have never tested positive for Covid-19 and are close to someone who has (159 students), 70% of them are concerned. This suggests that direct knowledge of the virus coupled with the uncertainty of never having experienced the effects of it is associated with a greater level of concerns about its risks. Also, the fact that nearly half of the respondents who have already had the virus and still express concern for its risks suggests a level of seriousness taken by students.

Planning to enroll but not necessarily ready to return

We asked students if they planned to enroll in the upcoming fall semester. Overall, 89% of students said yes, while 11% said no. Although the overwhelming majority of our sample planned to enroll for fall, only 58% of these students expressed readiness to return to campus. Fifty-nine percent felt ready to attend classes in person, and 53% felt ready to live on or near campus. About two-thirds expressed readiness to socialize with friends on campus.

How campuses can be proactive

Understanding the desire by some students to return to campus in the fall, we asked them what they want their schools to do to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone on campus. Overall, students would like clear direction from their schools, a plan to keep the community safe, and they suggest that those plans adhere to—if not supersede—CDC or local guidelines.

Here are the top suggestions students have for their schools to ensure everyone’s health and well-being on campus in the fall, ranked in order of frequency.

1. Cleaning and sanitizing: Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common response for what schools should do was enhancing their cleaning standards. Under normal circumstances, cleaning is scheduled overnight or on the weekends so it’s not disruptive to campus academic scheduling. Therefore, many students are not aware of cleaning procedures. In the case of a viral pandemic, though, the standards and expectations change because the threat is invisible. Students want to know the cleaning standards and the rigor of them. They want transparency of these standards and strict adherence to them. Students are vague about what rigorous cleanliness means to them. In the responses to our survey they refer to “deep,” “thorough” or “intense” practices – but seem to feel that trusting CDC, WHO or local guidelines will suffice.

2. Covid-19 testing and temperature checks: Testing and frequent temperature checks for as many people on campus as possible—including students, faculty, and staff—are other highly ranked items. Some students think that tests should be mandatory as they return to campus for the semester, and temperatures should be checked more frequently (sometimes as often as every time they enter a building). Given the barriers to testing in the United States, this is a call to action for colleges and universities to play a larger role in expanding testing capacity during the coming months.

3. Distance and online learning: Students seem very open to the idea of distance learning and learning format hybridization in the fall. They agree that capping class sizes would enable students to feel safe while on campus. Other strategies such as staggered class start times and the option of taking classes online for students who don’t feel safe were recommended as well.

4. Wearing masks and gloves: Another way that students feel campuses can be safer is by requiring students, faculty and staff to wear masks, both in and outside of the classroom. Also, when appropriate, they feel gloves should be encouraged too. This response was often paired with the encouraging of personal cleanliness habits such as frequent handwashing. Some students ask that if the school is requiring masks, the school should provide them. Others ask for clear communication around PPE protocol.

Importance of communication

Respondents expressed an interest in working with their institutions to find compromises (e.g., hybridization of online/in-person courses, lower-class capacities, and regular temperature checks) in order to create a safe environment. Clear communication channels between administrators and students will be key to facilitating these measures; students look to college and university officials as a source of credible information.

We asked respondents about the messages they are getting from their schools. Overall, respondents reported that their schools are doing a good job of providing timely information. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported being aware of their schools’ efforts to maintain a healthy campus environment and also reported being aware of their school’s efforts to manage the effects of Covid-19 outbreaks on campus.

Conclusion: Most are ready and willing to return

Every day, as new information is discovered, new solutions unfold. Still, so much is unknown. What will campuses look like when they re-open? How will classes be scheduled and located? Will students adequately adjust behaviors to create a safe campus environment?

Survey responses suggest that college and university students around the country take seriously the threat of Covid-19 and are concerned about the overall health and wellness of their campus communities. Most students in our sample (89%) said they planned to enroll in classes this fall. However, just over half of that subset (58%) are ready to return. The value of a collegiate education in the United States continues to extend beyond the classroom, and it’s clear that students miss their friends and the experience of being on campus. Our survey results indicate that many students are ready and willing to rise to the occasion and make a safe return to campus possible, but they want their schools to do their part too.

This independent survey was pulled together by a team of multidisciplinary higher education experts from across the United States. Peter Bacevice is director of research at HLW, a global architecture, design and strategy firm, and he is a research associate at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where he does research at the intersection of design, materiality and organizational behavior. Inger Bergom is a data/research analyst at the Tufts University Office of Institutional Research. Pelema Ellis serves as vice provost at the University of New Hampshire. Hyun Kyoung Ro is an associate professor at Bowling Green State University with a discipline that spans measurement, assessment and evaluation in higher education. Nathalie Weiss is a design strategist and associate at HLW in New York City, where she concentrates in higher education and workplace research and strategy.

More coverage of school reopenings can be found at UB’s coronavirus page. 

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