Are college COVID-19 cases the fault of campuses full of reckless partiers? Experts, students say no.

Sweaty, drunken revelers spilled into the street below Addy Miller’s campus-adjacent apartment on the Saturday

Sweaty, drunken revelers spilled into the street below Addy Miller’s campus-adjacent apartment on the Saturday after North Carolina State University’s first week of classes.

Miller, 20, viewed the late-night ruckus from her balcony, and others like it via news articles and viral videos. The locations vary, but the images are the same: throngs of college students partying like it’s 2019 — nary a mask in sight. 

Yet for Miller and her social circle, college in the time of coronavirus is an entirely different experience from the one playing out in news headlines. She and her friends wear masks outside their apartments — and sometimes inside — at small, socially distanced gatherings. 

Miller’s only face-to-face interactions are with friends she’s certain are taking COVID-19 safety precautions seriously, she said, though a stranger scanning her Snapchat stories might jump to different conclusions. She suspects many college students, like her, may feel misrepresented.

Addy Miller
Addy Miller

“I think more people are being responsible on campus than the media is portraying,” said Miller, a communications major and TV and film actress with an extensive IMDb bio. “People don’t know the measures you took to make sure you’re safe. It’s really easy right now to shame and blame people.”

Though sizable student gatherings have spawned COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses nationwide, experts say that chastising students for socializing is harmful, ineffective and fails to consider students’ developmental needs.

People go to college not only for an education but to seek social connections, become independent and explore their identity — all of which are rather difficult to do over Zoom, said Mary Alvord, a psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents. 

“We can’t put all the blame on the college students; it’s a shared responsibility, and the adults in charge need to understand developmentally where these students are coming from and their expectations beyond academics,” said Alvord, who also is an adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University. “Validate how tough this is.”

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College administrators may not have received the message.

Syracuse officials suspended 23 freshmen for gathering on school grounds and said in a statement that students “selfishly jeopardized the very thing so many of you claim to want from Syracuse University — that is, a chance at a residential collegiate experience. … Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself.”

After discovering gatherings that didn’t meet school guidelines, University of Connecticut officials evicted an undisclosed number of students from on-campus housing. Purdue suspended 36, although officials later walked back most of them. The University of Tennessee threatened to expel students who host parties. 

The list goes on. And on. And on. 

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Off-campus yard and porch parties were packed Thursday, Aug. 20, near the campus of Ohio State University. Few masks were visible. A mix of online and in-person classes begin Tuesday at the Columbus campus.
Off-campus yard and porch parties were packed Thursday, Aug. 20, near the campus of Ohio State University. Few masks were visible. A mix of online and in-person classes begin Tuesday at the Columbus campus.

North Carolina State on Wednesday announced it would close residence halls less than a week after moving classes online, citing COVID-19 clusters in on- and off-campus housing. Nearly 800 students have tested positive since the pandemic began, most of them in August, according to the school’s website.

Miller said she understands the decision to close dorms. She only had one in-person class, but many of the students in that group were involved in Greek life. 

“I was a little nervous, thinking, ‘What if I’m going to class with people who have been going to big parties?’” Miller said. “You have to trust they’re all taking the same precautions you are and that they’re thinking of other people. You just have to hope for the best.”

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The ‘age of exploration’

At a cursory glance, the math may seem simple: Partygoers become positive cases, recklessness results in sickness, socializing equals selfishness.

Not quite, Alvord said. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.

Students hail from diverse backgrounds and belief systems. Some may have spent the summer with immunocompromised family members; others’ parents could have convinced them the virus is a hoax.

Some students are physically healthy but suffer from mental illness. “The risk of being alone or disconnected feels greater to them than the risk of contracting or spreading the disease,” Alvord said. 

Plus, college students are in a developmental stage she describes as the “age of exploration.”

They feel young, invulnerable. Social engagement and acceptance are of utmost importance to them. “They want to be cool, to fit in, to belong — and that often supersedes perceived risk,” Alvord said.

Blame-and-shame tactics, while intended to target and tame a few bad actors, may have the opposite effect. When mask-free meetups make headlines, it proliferates the perception that everybody’s partying, so, to borrow a line from The Cranberries, why can’t we?  

“You can’t expect students to come back to campus, be locked in their rooms, not talk to anyone and eat all their meals by themselves,” said Hannah Lang, 20, a quantitative social science major at Dartmouth University. “At that point, it’s just not a campus experience at all.”

Hannah Lang
Hannah Lang

Students do have a responsibility to follow public health guidelines, and laying the blame solely at universities’ feet would deprive students of their agency, Lang said. Even so, she added, her school’s reopening plans suffer from a major flaw: “None of them included student buy-in or asked students how they were planning to behave or what challenges they might encounter.” 

Administrators at Beloit College in Wisconsin addressed the dissonance by asking students to rewrite the school’s Student Statement of Culture for the coronavirus era.

The student committee started with an honest conversation about how and where people would party rather than pretending they wouldn’t. 

“Telling college students, especially ones who have been living in their parents’ houses for five months, not to party or not to leave the dorm is unrealistic,” said Seva Poitevin, 21, a student government member. “Putting a ban on everything would encourage clandestine parties that wouldn’t be safe. They’d be completely unregulated, inside and very secretive — and that’s what we’re trying to get away from.” 

Seva Poitevin
Seva Poitevin

The guidelines the committee crafted even included recommendations for health-conscious hugs, which they turned into an infographic and printed on signage that they posted around campus. 

“It’s not about not doing things — not hugging, not partying, not seeing friends — it’s about how to do them safely,” Poitevin said. 

Administrators ponied up for circus tents, patio heaters, picnic tables and Adirondack chairs to make the campus’ outdoor spaces more inviting, said Tara Girard, director of Beloit’s health and wellness center and a registered nurse. 

“There are things as 20-year-old humans that they’re going to do, so it’s about how you educate them,” Girard said. “It’s harm reduction, not ‘just say no.’”

‘Confusing optics’

Lang led a research team at Dartmouth that delved into coronavirus concerns on campus. Students responding to the survey said they felt the school’s rules were unclear. Freshmen feared if they made one mistake they’d be sent home and blamed if administrators tightened restrictions. 

Lang said one of the issues the team tackled was how to address tiny transgressions. Perhaps behavior could be assessed on a sliding scale of egregiousness. Disregarding social distance guidelines by seeking comfort in a hug, for instance, is not the same as throwing a massive, mask-free rager. 

“You have the rule-followers who are really stressed about doing a single thing wrong because they may be sent home or expelled and none of the adults will trust them anymore, versus students who have given up and say, ‘Whatever, clearly this will all go wrong anyway so I might as well do whatever I want,’” Lang said. 

Were colleges ready? Colleges need tests to reopen, scientists say. Some don’t have much of a plan.

She believes the latter group is a small subset of her generation and that reports of students partying in her community may not be exactly what they seem. 

Many students she knows live in five-person apartments and have selected one other apartment’s residents to socialize with. A social media post or news photo of 10 people partying outside, playing beer pong or cornhole without masks, might induce some undeserved eye rolls. 

“It creates some confusing optics,” Lang said. “It’s being written about in the newspapers like we’re all completely out of control.” 

To Lang’s point, though Syracuse officials said hundreds of freshmen who gathered on school grounds on Aug. 19 “may have done enough damage to shut down campus,” news reports later indicated that all in attendance had tested negative prior to the event.

Addy Miller
Addy Miller

As Miller recalls the stream of students filling the street below her apartment, she doesn’t condone their choices, but she does understand them. 

She was homeschooled as a child so she could pursue acting. She has twice portrayed a zombie in “The Walking Dead,” and plays the lead role in “Behind You,” a horror film recently released on Hulu. 

“I missed out on a lot of my childhood,” Miller said. “I don’t want to miss out on college.” 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID cases in college: Are partying students ruining fall semester?

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