12 Tips for Returning to College Safely During the Pandemic
Returning to campus this fall poses unusual risks and anxieties, especially for faculty and students with underlying health issues, compromised immune systems, or vulnerable family members.
I get it. I’m a college professor with a vulnerable family member who will be teaching face-to-face this fall.
Here are twelve tips to help faculty and students return to college as safely as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope you’ll share these tips with your students as well as your fellow teachers.
- Contact professors or supervisors before classes start.
- Contact department heads if needed.
- Escalate to the Dean of Students if necessary.
- Wear masks everywhere.
- Distinguish passing by and sitting close to others.
- Take the stairs.
- Take hanging out outdoors.
- Get your books early and let them sit for three days.
- Use “situational awareness” (and hand sanitizer) all the time.
- If you feel unsafe, go somewhere else.
- Communicate relentlessly.
- Don’t feel bad “taking a break“ from people who make you feel unsafe.
Disclaimer: nothing protects 100% against infection or transmission; the situation at your specific university or college may make some of my advice more or less relevant.
Contact Professors or Supervisors Before Classes Start
Students, email your professors before classes start and ask about the university’s policies for COVID, confirm that the professor will follow them, and express any special concerns or circumstances you might have.
Emailing professors ahead of classes will allow you to form a plan before walking into class.
Ask about the attendance policy and whether attendance at face-to-face classes will be staggered to allow for social distancing. Look at the syllabus, schedule, and assignments for the course ahead of time if possible. For example, if there’s a group project, you could ask the professor how he or she plans to allow for social distancing in completing the project.
If the syllabus, schedule, and assignments aren’t posted online before the semester begins, then you absolutely should ask the professor if there are any group projects, attendance at large events, observing or shadowing, or anything else that might pose safety concerns.
Faculty, email or call your direct supervisor if you have not received as much information or guidance as you’d like. They may not know either, but they may be able to find out.
But more importantly, you will know to what extent you need to protect yourself. If your university isn’t providing substantial information about mitigating COVID at this point, then you should plan on taking your own steps to protect yourself.
Contact Department Heads if Needed
If a professor gives you any reason to worry, then contact the professor’s boss: the head of the department in which he or she teaches.
I expect the vast majority of faculty will follow their institution’s policies and accommodate reasonable requests from students, but if your professor dismisses your concerns or doesn’t follow policy, then you can contact the department head about any concerns that you can’t address with the professor directly.
Stick to the facts. I can’t stress this enough.
Don’t email the department head with a tirade about the professor. Simply state what was said or done, or not said or done, and express your concerns politely but firmly. Include the original emails between you and the professor as evidence.
For Faculty, the best place to escalate would be Human Resources. HR needs to know if policies aren’t being followed, and they can be an advocate for you. It’s part of their job, after all, to keep the university from getting sued.
If you decide to take significant actions yourself, such as staggering face-to-face attendance with Zoom attendance, then you should get permission from the Dean and/or Provost so that you don’t suffer blow-back later. Of course, you’ll need to keep students apprised of such changes, too.
Escalate to the Dean of Students if Necessary
If the department head doesn’t support you or your requests, then you have another recourse: the Dean of Students. You can usually email the Dean of Students directly, but you can also request a phone call or a Zoom meeting.
Again, stick to the facts. Focus on actions or words. Don’t speculate about the professor or department head’s intentions, motivations, or character. Just state your concerns politely but firmly. Explain what you said to the professor and the department head and describe their responses.
Provide the original emails as evidence.
The Dean of Students will certainly enforce any policies the university and college might have. He or she will likely support any reasonable requests to enhance your safety or comfort-level.
Faculty have similar recourse with HR, the Dean, and the Provost. But you also need to stick to the facts. It’s a scary, uncertain time, but take deep breaths and focus on what you can control — which is respectfully asking permission to protect yourself and your vulnerable loved ones.
Wear Masks Everywhere
Masks should be worn everywhere, by everyone, on campus. My university will require students to wear masks everywhere except within their dorm rooms. Why? Because masks work.
Here’s a New York Times graphic showing the infection curves in various countries and regions. In Japan, where masking is nearly 100%, the curve is close to zero. In Europe and Canada, masking is very common. In the United States where we’ve argued about masks for months …
Distinguish Passing By and Sitting Close to Others
If you’re anxious about walking into a campus building and trekking past hordes of students, distinguish between passing by people and sitting close to them for prolonged periods.
Passing by people involves minimal exposure to whatever germs they may breath out, especially if everyone’s wearing masks. Don’t stress about walking past a group.
Standing next to people in the hallway waiting for class, sitting next to classmates, and so forth poses different risks. Masks minimize the risk, but it’s still present.
So, don’t stand next to people in the hallway while waiting for class. Wait outside the building until it’s time for class. Dress appropriately.
Most classrooms are built for a certain capacity. Many professors, then, will have to stagger face-to-face attendance to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Emailing professors ahead of the semester is a great opportunity to ask about the attendance policy, and emailing supervisors is the first step toward getting approval for things like staggering in-person attendance.
Take the Stairs
Take the stairs instead of the crowded, enclosed space of an elevator.
Not everyone can take the stairs, of course, which makes it important that anyone who can handle stairs does so. Besides, you’ll burn some calories and get in shape. Win-win!
Take Hanging Out Outdoors
Hanging out with friends is a huge part of the college experience. Some of that will be lost due to COVID, but some of it can be saved.
Try to hang out with friends outside if possible. Instead of sipping your Frappes inside the campus Starbucks, find a patch of grass in the shade. If all those spots are taken, take a walk with your friends.
Google local parks and outdoor recreation. Have a picnic instead of going out to eat. Do a curbside pick-up order and eat outside. Go through the drive-thru and park somewhere. Have a party outside where you can stay six feet apart.
Faculty, hold your office hours virtually. Get permission, put it in your syllabus, and then get outdoors or return home. I’m providing students my cell phone number and a recurring Zoom meeting during my office hours so that they can contact me remotely as easily as they could pop into my office.
Socializing and social distancing don’t have to be “either/or.” Being available to students yet safe doesn’t have to be “either/or.” They can “both/and” if you do them right.
Get your Books Early and Let Them Sit for Three Days
I know most students wait until fairly late to get their books, but if possible, get your textbooks early and then let them sit in a bag for three or four days.
The novel Coronavirus that causes COVID lasts only about three days or less on surfaces. You could sanitize your books, of course, but books can be difficult to clean.
Getting the books early means that you won’t need them for a while. So why not let them sit long enough for the Coronavirus to die on its own?
Use Situational Awareness (and Hand Sanitizer) All the Time
Pay attention to what you touch, which hand you use, and whether you ought to whip out the hand sanitizer. Frequent hand-washing is one of the best ways to fight any virus, but you can’t always wash your hands. I mean, are you going to go to the bathroom every ten minutes during class?
Hone your situational awareness so that you notice what you touch.
Carry a pocket-sized tube of hand sanitizer and use it. Hone your situational awareness so that you notice when you’ve been touching things that might carry virus particles, like door handles, desks, a classmate’s dropped pen.
If You Feel Unsafe, Go Somewhere Else
Recently, I walked into a local store to return something. There were a ton of people jammed at the front counter, none wearing masks, everyone talking loudly. The workers behind the counter weren’t wearing masks either.
I didn’t feel safe, so I left. I said to myself, “I can return this later.”
If you feel unsafe when you walk into a campus building, then just leave and come back later unless you have some urgent, time-sensitive reason for being there. Then get in and get out.
Or you can request, preferably in advance, to attend via Zoom. Most faculty and committee meetings should already be held remotely, but if not, your safety matters more than other people’s preference for face-to-face meetings.
It’s easy to feel like you’re harassing faculty or overwhelming students with tons of emails, talking after class (six feet apart!), or Zoom meetings. Don’t.
Err on the side of over-communicating.
Most professors will work with students if they communicate their needs up-front and ahead of time. If you communicate concerns, challenges, or anxieties, then your professors can do something about them. If you keep things to yourself, then no one can help you.
Department heads and other supervisors should also try to work with anyone who communicates transparently. But if not, then there is a written record of communication to use when escalating to HR, the Dean, or the Provost.
If there was ever a time for over-communication, a global pandemic is it.
Don’t Feel Bad “Taking a Break“ from Unsafe People
Some people aren’t taking COVID as seriously as it deserves. If those people are your professors or supervisors, then you know what to do (Tips #1–3).
But if those people are your friends or family, then you may need to “take a break.”
You don’t have to cut someone out of your life completely, but you also don’t have to spend a lot of time with someone whose choices and actions make you feel unsafe.
Say your best friend won’t wear a mask anywhere, and you feel like a nervous wreck every time you hang out. Did he get COVID while out and about? Is she gonna give it to me right now?
Take a break. Be upfront about your concerns. Say, “I’m really worried about COVID, and if you’re not gonna take some precautions, then I need to take care of my health.”
Yes, it will be sad to lose that person, even temporarily. But the gains in your mental health, not to mention protecting your physical health and that of your loved ones, will more than balance out the scales.
There’s no doubt that you will experience unusual stress, anxiety, and challenges this fall semester. But by preparing in advance, you can return to college as safely and stress-free as possible.
Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric at a public university. He is the author of Become Your Own Fact-Checker: How to Decide What to Believe in the Clutter of News, Noise, and Lies and How to Write an Essay like an Equation: A Brief Guide to Writing like You’re Doing Math. Learn more at www.ericsentell.com.