University is known for many things, but social distance isn’t one. Students like to party, meet up, go out. The very nature of university is designed to be a convergence of people and ideas, of culture and diversity. It brings people together. However, as the new semester begins, universities face a complex problem: how can they safely reopen campuses in the age of COVID-19? As universities draw up plans for how to bring students back, here are six ways to ensure a safe return to campus.
Data and capacity
Universities should identify the high traffic areas on campus and set capacity limits. Just like grocery stores and restaurants, it’s important to reduce the total number of bodies present inside a space. This is particularly important because the risk of transmission indoors is 19 times higher than outside. Paring down the number of available seating options and utilising real-time occupancy data will help avoid overcrowding at meal-times and midterms.
Universities can empower students to self-regulate on campus. Students should know when areas have most recently been sanitised and how many people are currently in any of the refectories, libraries, or gyms. With accurate data, displays, and communication, schools can provide students the information they need to make good choices when navigating campus.
One-way flow and clear signage
Directional signage can help students self-regulate and provide actionable methods to avoid person-to-person transmission of the virus. Establishing one-way foot traffic through public areas, particularly indoors, is a great way to manage crowds. Other signage can serve as a reminder of good hygiene and health practices. Wash hands regularly, wear face coverings, maintain six feet between people, limit group activities. Universities should over-communicate policy and reassure their communities that proper measures are being taken to keep everyone healthy.
Screenings and questionnaires
Some universities are requiring that all returning students be screened for the virus or fill out questionnaires about their recent health history. While it may initially sound draconian, these universities are dead-set on ensuring communal health to the best of their abilities. Students who test negative will be allowed to proceed with their move-in process and resume classes. Students that test positive will have to quarantine and retake the test in two weeks to ensure they are free of the virus.
Multiple learning environments
Many universities are establishing multiple learning environments. This means that students can opt for a fully remote semester or a hybrid of in-person and online classes. Offering students and families this choice helps balance the worry of getting sick and missing another semester of coursework. This hybrid infrastructure also allows schools to mitigate the spread of the virus in the event that students start testing positive during in-person classes. Students can quarantine in residence halls, stay up-to-date on coursework, and protect their fellow students who are still physically attending classes.
It may be tempting to institute technologies and procedures that protect student health but sacrifice privacy. As much as possible, universities should prioritise student privacy. Asking simple if/then questions about new policies should help identify which are effective and which are invasive. If students fill out health questionnaires, then where does that personal data go and who sees it? The same goes for cameras. If universities install cameras to track overcrowding on campus, then how does that surveillance affect student experience and trust?
Creating a successful public effort to beat the virus and get back to university depends on fostering a community of trust, action, and communication. Students and families need to trust that universities are making every effort to ensure a safe, healthy, and productive learning environment. Schools need to trust that students will self-regulate and follow the necessary procedures. Through clear signage, mobile applications, and accurate data, universities can communicate plans to their student body and cultivate a community of action.
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