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SDSU begins fall semester hoping to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks that are hitting other universities

SDSU will have far fewer students on campus this fall. But there's still great concern about the possible spread of COVID-19.
SDSU will have far fewer students on campus this fall. But there’s still great concern about the possible spread of COVID-19.
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

Many students seen did not wear masks or practice social distancing on Saturday night

San Diego State University will begin the fall semester Monday seeking to answer a crucial public health question that colleges and universities nationwide are struggling to figure out:

How do you persuade young students to wear masks and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, especially at schools with popular fraternities and sororities.

On Saturday night, few students were seen wearing masks or practicing social distancing in and around campus over a two-hour period observed by the Union-Tribune. Some of the students were sitting on the south side of the Prebys Student Union, not far from signs that urged them to wear masks.

This runs contrary to everything that SDSU health and residential life officials have been planning and doing for months.

The university normally houses about 7,500 students. It cut that figure by two-thirds to make it easier to practice social distancing. It also set capacity limits in such places as study areas and laundry rooms.

COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at college campuses around the country, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Notre Dame to UC Berkeley, undermining efforts to restore a bit of normalcy as the school year begins. In many cases, the outbreaks have been linked to fraternities.

The fallout is crystallized by what’s been happening at UNC, which will be closed through Tuesday so it can move students out of campus housing. It also shifted more of its courses online, the sort of move that’s unpopular among many students.

Universities say they are fighting human nature. College kids, especially those who’ve never been away from home and who’ve been cooped up by the pandemic, want to socialize.

“The majority of students follow the rules in the classroom. That’s not necessarily true after 5 p.m. in residence halls and fraternities,” said Hank Nuwer, a professor emeritus at Indiana’s Franklin College. He studies the behavior of fraternities.

The spotlight is now on SDSU, which has a large, robust system of fraternities and sororities.

The university will offer most of its courses online this fall, which will cut down on mingling. But about 2,600 students are now living in dorms. And the anti-COVID-19 rules seemed like an afterthought on Saturday night.

Students were required to sign an addendum to their leases in which they agreed to follow the university’s COVID-19 guidelines, which don’t leave much to interpretation.

Kara Bauer,SDSU’s executive director of residential education, says students are told, “You don’t have to wear (masks) in your room. But when you open that door and enter the hallway you have to. You’re now in a public place ... There’s no attending or hosting gatherings. The policies are in there.”

The dorm move-in period usually last four days. It was cut to two, and students were given a specific time and day to move in. Students could only bring two family members to help, and they were only allowed to stay 24 hours to help students get settled.

SDSU encouraged parents to serve as coaches for their children, helping to remind them how to follow the COVID-19 guidelines — now and for the rest of the semester.

The campus is reinforcing its COVID-19 messages in emails and videos, hoping to snag the attention of a generation of college kids who have never known a time when cellphones didn’t exist.

Boston’s Northeastern University has taken things a step further, sending warning emails to 115 students who said on social media that they were looking forward to partying this fall.

SDSU also says that it is willing to consider disciplinary action against students who willfully ignore its COVID-19 rules. But the campus is taking more of a soft-stick approach, trying to reinforce positive messages. The university says it is responding, in part, to the anxiety that the pandemic has caused to not only students, but faculty and staff.

“2020 has been an emotional and mental roller coaster for many of us,” said Dr. Libby Skiles, SDSU’s director of Student Health Services.

“In many ways, people have grieved for the normal (things) we used to have — for being able to have these amazing experiences, these rites of passage like graduation and prom, and to be able to go to concerts or to be within 6 feet of a colleague without worry about it.

“As we go into this year, we’re cognizant that our students and our community are missing those milestones.”

Devin Whatley, a senior who studies journalism at SDSU, is hoping for the best but worries how things might play out.

“Students want to meet and socialize. It’s natural,” Whatley said Sunday. “But a lot of young people don’t think that COVID can affect them as much as people who are older. That increases the risk. If we have one outbreak, it could cause a problem that is so big it would mean that keeping the campus open wouldn’t be sustainable.

“I think that is super-concerning.”


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