If Anyone Can Handle COVID This Fall, It’s College Students

By Brooke Conrad
·  5 min read
If Anyone Can Handle COVID This Fall It’s College Students

Some colleges are planning drastic COVID-19 adjustments this fall, like moving classes completely online or cancelling sports. Many of these changes result from unrealistic expectations for social distancing.

The reality is, college campuses will likely be pretty full this fall. 90% of students say they plan to return to campus,  and 73% of students say they plan to live on campus even if instruction takes place online. Besides, the number of colleges planning to teach online-only is pretty small; around 65% plan to resume classes in-person.

Do college administrators expect all of these students to spend an entire semester six feet apart and constantly wearing their masks? At some point, they’ve got to admit it: college-age people are not good at social distancing, especially when compared with other demographics. One recent survey showed that 42% of respondents aged 18 to 39 socialized without social distancing, compared with 26% of people over 40.

At some point, they’ve got to admit it: college-age people are not good at social distancing.

And habits certainly aren’t going to change once those students arrive on campus — especially after having been separated from their friends since March.  They might sit six feet apart in class, but the social distancing will be minimal at coffee shops, bars, off-campus housing, etc. College administrators can set as many guidelines as they want, but as long as students are living on campus, the virus is going to spread like wildfire.

So why require such heavy restrictions? The virus will spread rapidly with or without them. Administrators could still require students to follow social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines while they attend classes, for the sake of anyone who is higher-risk. But cancelling extracurriculars and in-person courses altogether seems like a step too far.

After All, College Students, of All People, Can Afford To Socialize

Recent estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that college-age students without comorbidities would be more likely to die in a car accident than to get the coronavirus. 

Specifically, the statistics show that the virus in general is not nearly as harmful as it was originally estimated to be. According to the CDC, the current death rate for those infected is 0.26%. The World Health Organization originally estimated 3.4%, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci estimated about 2%.

College students without comorbidities are more likely to die in a car accident than to get COVID. 

That new number — 0.26% — includes the elderly population and those who live in nursing homes, who are far more likely to die from the virus. For those under 50 years old with symptoms, the CDC says the number is closer to 1 in 5,000, or 0.02%. But most of those deaths involve people with comorbidities, meaning the death rate for healthy, young individuals is even lower. 

Restrictions Will Harm Students More Than Help Them

Students dish out enormous sums for the “university experience,” as in, not just the academics, but the extracurriculars, clubs, sports, facilities, and face-to-face interactions with professors and peers. On average, a student’s semester tuition will amount to $5,000 at public colleges in-state, $13,000 at public colleges out-of-state, and $20,000 at private colleges. Students don’t want to spend that much money to be cooped up in their dorm room staring at a computer screen all day.

They might as well take courses through an online college like Western Governors University, where tuition usually costs around $3,000-$4,000 for a 6-month term, and students can take as many courses as they want. 

Some students are already planning to take an entire year off from school, delaying their careers.

In anticipation of heavy campus restrictions, some students are already planning to take an entire year off from school, delaying their careers and futures. And mental health is another big topic: Do we really want to force college students to self-isolate longer than absolutely necessary?

Could Colleges Achieve Herd Immunity?

Reports differ on whether it’s possible to achieve herd immunity with COVID-19. 

At least two countries attempted it. One was Sweden: The country avoided lockdown altogether and ended up with a much higher death count than neighboring countries. Britain tried it as well, but transitioned into lockdowns after concerns about rising deaths. At one point, 5.4% of Britain was infected, well below the 43% required for herd immunity, according to one estimate

Colleges are much smaller than countries and could possibly develop herd immunity more quickly. 

But colleges are much smaller than countries and could possibly develop herd immunity more quickly. And the experiment would be much less risky because their populations experience much lower death rates than nations do. So when infection rates rise this fall — as they might — perhaps that’s a good thing. Once enough people catch the virus, the infections will slowly start to decrease.

A plus to this approach is that many colleges are already planning to start their semester early, skip fall break, and end by Thanksgiving. This would more or less isolate their campuses from the rest of the world for a four-month period. So why not let college students socialize as much as they want while they’re stuck on campus, build up herd immunity, and then return home at Thanksgiving once the virus has run its course? That way they don’t have all the complications of limiting activities when a lot of people will get the virus anyway. 

Closing Thoughts

It seems we’ve built up so much anxiety about the pandemic that we have trouble weighing pros and cons in an even-tempered fashion.

Protecting nursing homes makes sense. They should definitely be implementing the most extreme precautions because they’re dealing with a high-risk population. And even K-12 school activities should be open for discussion because K-12 kids are constantly interacting with families and there’s more potential for dangerous spread. But college students are a unique community that’s far more capable of weathering the pandemic this fall.