Student compliance with social distancing: Ways to encourage and enforce

An EAB survey reveals university leaders are concerned students will not social distance. Here’s how they will encourage the safety practice and may enforce policy.

Campus reopening efforts designed for student safety will only be effective with student cooperation. But higher ed officials hope that positive reinforcement measures will help students make efforts to comply with social distancing policies.

The nearly 70 college and university leaders surveyed in early June by education firm EAB about their plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this fall expressed widespread concern about whether students, especially undergraduates, would social distance. In fact, fears about student compliance of social distancing surpassed those related to funding costs and time to prepare.

Respondents were senior student affairs leaders, including vice presidents of student affairs, deans of students and chiefs of staff.

Their greatest concern is getting students to follow social distancing guidelines in residence halls and in other on-campus housing. Ensuring student compliance in on-campus common areas ranks as their second-biggest concern, and the extent to which students will follow safety measure while off campus is the third most common concern.

More than 9 in 10 institutions plan to use floor marketing and signs to help students stay six feet apart.

How to raise social distancing awareness

Most administrators surveyed have medium to high confidence in their ability to educate and promote social distancing among staff, faculty and graduate students. In comparison, just 31% expressed high confidence in their ability to promote social distancing among undergraduate students.

Their plans generally involve using positive reinforcement strategies, including depicting positive behaviors on social media (79%) and using student leaders and campus influencers to promote social distancing (75%).

About two-thirds of respondents said they are planning to provide students with welcome kits that include safety materials such as face masks and educational information about physical-distancing protocols. EAB Associate Director Hailey Badger believes more colleges should be providing such kits. “Schools need to have a plan in place to ensure students have access to these materials,” she says.

In general, she advises institutional leaders to communicate proactively with students “to set expectations around what life on campus will look like in the fall.” Administrators will want to embed social distancing guidelines into campus social norms, she adds. That involves “working with student leaders and other influential students on campus to craft messaging, including social media campaigns, that will resonate with students,” she says.

What to do about enforcement

Should punitive measures be used to enforce compliance with new policies? Administrators aren’t in agreement on how to handle this piece. While some are considering no sanctions at all, others may decide to refer student rule-breakers for additional education and coaching—or even to ban students from campus for two weeks for repeated noncompliance.

In terms of carrying out these proposed penalties, the top concern was to ensure they are enforced equitably, with 52% expressing that concern.

“Preventing intentional and unintentional biases is top of mind,” says EAB Managing Director Liz Rothenberg. Campus leaders want to ensure new COVID-19 policies and procedures “are enforced equally and fairly and that they won’t disproportionately affect students who are already facing greater challenges.”

Overall, EAB researchers hope the survey results “will give administrators a clearer picture of where they might have gaps in their own planning efforts, so they know where to focus their energies,” says Badger.

Detailed survey insights can be found on EAB’s blog.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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