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As Colleges Make Plans For Fall, More Young People Are Getting COVID-19


Young people make up a growing share of new coronavirus cases, which is not good news for colleges currently drawing up plans to welcome them back to campus this fall. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been looking into what the fall semester will look like, and she joins us now. Hi, Elissa.


MARTIN: How in the world is this going to work?

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Look, everything I say right now could totally change. We're still weeks away from the first day of classes, but we are seeing plans.

MARTIN: Right, caveat.

NADWORNY: Yeah, totally. There is going to be hybrid solutions, so that's a mix of in-person and remote learning. For colleges attempting to go in-person, it's early start dates, no fall breaks. You know, colleges are trying to reduce the number of students in the dorms. So in some cases, maybe it's just freshmen. Campus is going to look different. There is not going to be big events. Sports are a big question mark. You know, most campuses are going to try and require mask wearing and enforce social distancing.

MARTIN: I mean, that sounds like a lot, but is it even enough to do what it needs to do?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, we've seen positive cases following things like frat parties and athletic practices, so student spread is a big and real worry. You know, in the fall, colleges are going to be bringing back thousands of young people. You know, I talked with Jacques du Passage about this. He'll be a sophomore at Louisiana State University in the fall. And here's what he said.

JACQUES DU PASSAGE: I mean, to be on campus, to be around everybody, you know, that's definitely part of what you're praying for.

NADWORNY: Can you imagine a party where everyone is wearing masks?

DU PASSAGE: No, no, no. I don't think they would do that. I think they would just have the party and then face the repercussions of that.

MARTIN: I mean, I can see that happening - right? - the mask thing. But also is someone seriously going to stand at the front door and be like, sorry, we've reached our max capacity at this party? I mean, this is going to demand serious self-discipline from students.

NADWORNY: Yeah, absolutely. And students that I've talked to - like, some are pretty optimistic. They think they can do it. But the reality is it's going to depend on their peers' behavior, right? That's what impacts the entire community. That means it all comes down to student behavior. I sat in on a Zoom meeting with student orientation leaders at the University of Miami.

PAT WHITELY: All of you become more crucial than you've ever been before because we have to have everybody cooperate.

NADWORNY: That's Pat Whitely, head of student affairs, talking to about a dozen upperclassmen. She says the college will need their help getting students to follow the new rules.

WHITELY: Because if we have an outbreak, you know, then that becomes really, really a problem for everybody.

NADWORNY: The University of Miami will hire student ambassadors to help enforce some of these health policies. So that leads us to this big question - can we rely on students to change their behavior and ultimately enforce each other?

ANNA SONG: This is the conversation everyone is having right now.

NADWORNY: Anna Song studies young adult decision-making and is a professor at UC Merced. Traditional-aged students who make up about three-quarters of residential college students, their brains are wired for reward.

SONG: If you ask kids what the risks are, they can tell you what the risks are. It's just they are highly sensitized to reward, especially reward in the context of peers.

NADWORNY: And hanging out with friends on campus, that's a pretty amazing reward, especially after many have spent the spring and summer away from their friends. But there are ways to change student behavior. Song points to her own research on preventing students from smoking. She found messages around secondhand smoke, the idea that smoking poses a risk to people nearby, made a big difference for young people.

SONG: They do consider the risk posed to others.

NADWORNY: The challenge for colleges is to find out what motivates students to adhere. Song's not convinced keeping your professor safe is enough. Focusing on family or friends who are vulnerable might work, but even then it's an uphill battle.

KRISTEN RENN: Peer culture is really durable and, you know, it's not easy to change. It's not an easy lift.

NADWORNY: Kristen Renn is a professor and the associate dean of undergraduate studies at Michigan State University.

RENN: We haven't done it with alcohol. We haven't done it with sexual behavior. We haven't done it with all kinds of things.

NADWORNY: Her worry is the moments outside the classroom - brushing your teeth, running into your friends, grabbing dinner.

ELLEN YATES: All of our routines are built around social interaction.

NADWORNY: That's Ellen Yates, a senior at the University of Virginia. She's part of a group of student leaders figuring out how to convince students to comply with guidelines. She says she's focused on positive peer pressure and accountability, but even she has doubts.

YATES: I'm pretty anxious about how or if we're going to be able to keep students in line with these guidelines. I think it's definitely interesting psychological experiment for sure.

NADWORNY: An experiment that will ultimately answer the question, is this too big of an ask for students? Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.