September 16, 2020/Infectious Disease

College Life and COVID-19: Is it Possible to Stay Safe?

If avoiding crowds, hand hygiene and wearing a mask are on the syllabus, it is

college students studying in library

Parties, cram sessions, tailgating, pledging…


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That was college life before COVID-19. While a good deal of these activities shouldn’t be taking place right now, some students across the country are still determined to make the most of their college experience despite the pandemic. We know because we’ve seen the pictures and videos or heard the accounts firsthand. And because of this, campuses and college towns are rapidly becoming hotspots for coronavirus infections.

This time of year is stressful enough for parents who are sending their children out into the world for the first time. On top of worrying about how their kids will do on their own when they’re hundreds or thousands of miles away, parents now have to wonder if their children can manage to stay safe during the pandemic.

“It’s a difficult thing,” says pediatric infectious disease specialist Camille Sabella, MD. “Some college kids might resent the fact that they can’t have their normal college life. Even though they might not be receptive to some of the concerns, it’s certainly worth educating students and encouraging them to stay safe on campus.”

Tips for staying safe in a dorm room

It would be nice if there was a surefire formula for keeping students safe in small spaces. But it’s tough because this is all so new and we’ve never had to think about any of this before. Dr. Sabella believes that while we don’t have all the answers right now, using common sense and practicing the protocols that are already in place can help reduce the risk of infection around campus and even in dorm rooms.

We know that we should sanitize our living spaces often and avoid inviting people who aren’t in our inner circles into them. We also know hand hygiene and wearing masks are helpful, too. But Dr. Sabella points out that communication between roommates is crucial to keeping everyone safe.

“For those with roommates, just knowing where each person is going and what activities both will be participating in is key. To take it one step further, roommates can come to an agreement about practicing a safe campus lifestyle. This means staying away from crowds and wearing a mask. While you can’t control each other’s movements, it would be great to actually have some kind of an agreement about the activities that you both are going to do, and more importantly, not do,” says Dr. Sabella.


Tips for staying safe around campus

It might seem like it’s impossible to avoid infection in college settings, but Dr. Sabella says there are definitely some things students can do to lessen the risks. He urges college students to avoid dining in at restaurants or hanging out in bars with different crowds of people. These things are tough for social butterflies but necessary to stay safe and healthy.

“It’s a very difficult thing for college students because they already feel like their college experiences are being altered. But the bigger goal for most of us is to not get infected and spread COVID-19. So, students really need to think about where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing even if they don’t really want to. And contrary to what they believe, social distancing, masking, washing hands and staying away from sick people are still very important.”

Here are some additional ways for students to protect themselves while on campus:

  • Wear a mask or a face shield with a mask in public spaces. Especially during situations where it’s hard to maintain social distancing. Also, avoid touching your face.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing. Use a tissue or your sleeve to do it instead of your hands. Throw your tissue away and sanitize your hands when finished.
  • Practice physical distancing. Stay six feet away from others if possible. If you have the option to take classes remotely, do so to protect yourself. Also, for students who don’t live on campus, avoid going to campus if it’s not necessary.
  • Follow social distancing guidelines. Avoid group gatherings and crowded places.
  • Wash your hands often. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • If you are sick, don’t go to class or other activities. If you need to talk to a healthcare provider, contact them by phone or schedule a virtual visit. If things get worse, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Clean and disinfect your dorm room regularly. Use a virus-killing disinfectant to clean frequently touched surfaces such as phones, tables, desks, keyboards, doorknobs, handles and faucets.
  • Maintain healthy habits. Get enough rest, eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water and exercise, if you are able, to help keep your immune system strong.

Words of wisdom for worried parents

It’s completely understandable why parents of college students are worried right now. Their children have left the nest and are now trying to navigate life on their own in the middle of a pandemic. It also doesn’t help that they’re among hundreds or thousands of other young adults who may or may not follow the guidelines put in place. While the risks for infection are higher at college, Dr. Sabella says this age group tends to be more resilient.

“The virus has been much milder in younger people than in older people. Certainly, it can last a couple of days but the symptoms have been pretty mild overall. College-age kids who don’t have any predisposing risk factors have done well clinically for the most part.”

This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t be concerned. Outbreaks on college campuses have posed a number of problems for college towns and other areas with students traveling back and forth. If a campus shutdown occurs and there’s a chance that your child was exposed to the virus, you’ll need to take extra precautions in figuring out how they can self-quarantine without putting your entire household at risk by coming home.


Dr. Sabella explains.

“If an outbreak on a college campus ends up sending everyone home, that’s going to result in a lot more older and high-risk people getting exposed to the virus. I do caution parents about their kids being sent home if this happens because it’s probably best for their children to self-quarantine away from home if possible. Certainly, if a child is showing symptoms of the virus or has been in close contact with someone who was infected, they really shouldn’t be around older people or those who are considered high-risk.”

How to talk to your college student about the coronavirus

While stressing the importance of wearing a mask, washing and sanitizing hands frequently and staying away from large crowds and parties is good, Dr. Sabella says parents also need to emphasize how carelessness doesn’t just affect one person right now. Not being careful can cause a domino effect at home and throughout the community as well.

If your child expresses opposition to staying safe, he suggests taking this approach.

“I would say, ‘You know, becoming infected may not be a horrible thing for you because the chances are greater for your recovery. However, it still can create a lot of chaos. If you get infected, you’re going to expose a lot of other people. That causes even more problems, especially on a college campus where they’re planning the school year based on the numbers of cases they currently have. It might not be a big deal to you, but the ramifications of having a whole bunch of college kids who are infected certainly alter whether a college is going to have live or virtual classes or whether there are going to be sporting events and other activities. That is a huge deal.’ So, talking to kids in that manner and conveying that the chaos they cause could affect a lot of other people might make them think twice about engaging in high-risk behaviors.”

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