This fall, as millions of students arrive at college campuses across the U.S., so, too, will COVID-19 — the deadly virus that has killed over 160,000 people in the country to date — and with it, waves of uncertainty for students and their families.
“It gives me stress because no one knows how much it's going to affect your body, because everyone's different,” said Meredith Nash, 21, a returning senior who will be attending Indiana University Bloomington.
The psychology major, who spent the summer quarantining with her family in Savannah, Georgia, will share an apartment with four other students. With more than 40,000 students headed to Bloomington, Indiana for the fall semester — all from various parts of the U.S. — Nash fears that she or one of her roommates will contract the virus. Her university will provide a mix of in-person and online learning until Thanksgiving break — afterwards, classes will be fully remote until February, according to the university’s website.
Nash is most concerned about an in-person lab she will attend with about 25 other students.
What's at risk for students?
Students returning to campus this semester have reason to be concerned. Already, more than 6,600 COVID-19 cases can be traced back to an estimated 270 colleges and universities, according to a recent survey by The New York Times. And for campuses to safely reopen, students will need to be tested for the virus every two to three days, according to a recent study led by the Yale School of Public Health — an unlikely scenario for many colleges and universities given the challenges of testing.
For students who already struggle with anxiety, the pandemic will likely take a magnified toll, according to Niro Feliciano, a cognitive psychotherapist based in Wilton, Connecticut, whose podcast, All Things COVID-19: Coping With The New Normal, advises families on how to deal with stress during the pandemic. Many of these students are not just worried about getting sick — they’re worried about whether campuses will shut down again, and how it may disrupt their education and their futures, she explained.
“This is a generation whose mental health has been impacted for so many different reasons, whether they're going back to college, whether they're staying home for college, whether they've had to withdraw from college because of financial reasons. So across the board we're seeing anxiety for different reasons increase, and that is going to have a mental health impact, I think, for years to come, because of what they're experiencing in this moment,” Feliciano told TODAY.
For students with medical conditions that put them in a high-risk category for severe illness — a common problem for people of color, who represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19 illnesses in the U.S. — the prospect of returning to campus is even more nerve wracking.
What students are most concerned about
Gabby Allen, 20, a returning junior at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, suffers from asthma. Currently quarantining with her parents in Orlando, she will soon move back to Tallahassee in an off-campus apartment with one roommate, a friend who she has lived with previously. In addition to being “terrified” of catching the virus, the psychology major said she’s worried about how a potential long-term illness or campus shut down may impact her future. “I'm considering changing my plans for after college and internships because, as of right now, we really don't know what's happening or going to happen. And so I just want to make sure that I'm safe. I have to make decisions based off of right now and not really think so far in the future.”
Trevion McClary, 21, a returning senior at Talladega College in Alabama, also suffers from asthma and is worried about his health. Over the summer, McClary lived with his mother in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he worked in a nursing home. He tested both positive and negative for the virus, and is uncertain whether he had it. “I’m scared that I will catch it again,” said McClary, an English major and aspiring teacher who plans to finish his final semester in the spring with an internship. “I don't want to get sick and then that throws me off track,” he said.
For first-year college students, many of whom will be randomly paired with roommates, the typical feeling of butterflies associated with moving away from family for the first time is compounded by uncertainty over whether their roommates will share their concerns for the virus.
“I definitely have a fear of leaving — and leaving my comfort zone — and going to a new place that I've never been to before and being around people I've never known.”
Kate, 18, who asked that her last name not be shared for concerns over privacy, will start her first year at Providence College in Rhode Island this fall. She spent the summer quarantining with her parents in Connecticut, where she anxiously waited to find out who her roommate will be. While she is confident they will work out a plan to keep safe, she said she is still nervous.
“I definitely have a fear of leaving — and leaving my comfort zone — and going to a new place that I've never been to before and being around people I've never known,” she said. “So it's definitely a bit scary, and I'm worried about meeting people, especially now that there's so many restrictions.”
How students can stay safe — and sane — at school
Lisa Carlson, president of the American Public Health Association, said regular hand washing, watching your distance (keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from others) and wearing a mask will continue to be the most important things students can do to prevent contracting the virus and spreading it to their roommates. She adds that communication is vital among cohabitants.
“People have to understand that the most important thing they can do is communicate,” said Carlson. “So if they talk to their suitemates or their common space people about things like, ‘How are we going to keep the space clean? How are we going to deal with somebody if they start to show symptoms? And how are we going to deal with our bubble or our quarantine team or our social distancing with other people?’... Having conversations up front about how to deal with all that I think is really important.”
To reduce anxiety and conflict, Feliciano recommends roommates establish pandemic “house rules” prior to moving in together.
“I think it's about being aware of how other people think, how they want to live their life in the context of living together, and having these open conversations about it so we can eliminate some of the surprises in the unknowns that create conflict, but also greatly increase anxiety once the situation presents itself,” she said.
If you and your roommates can’t agree, you may need to change the way you communicate with them. Check out these tips on how to communicate with someone who isn’t listening. Additionally, here are three topics you should address with your new roommates.
1. House rules
Prior to moving in, roommates should discuss “house rules.” Nash, who will live in a house off campus, said she and her roommates met over Zoom to discuss rules around how to prevent and deal with COVID-19 before moving in together.
“Mainly the biggest point we all agreed on was we need to be open with each other,” she said. “We need to make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking about what's making them uncomfortable, because if someone is too nervous to speak up, it's just going to cause issues.”
Nash took notes during the meeting, then sent them to a group chat “so we can always refer back — like this is what we agreed on before,” she said.
What should pandemic “house rules” cover? Here are some suggestions from Carlson. You can also check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidelines for roommates on how to deal with COVID-19.
- Figure out who is allowed to visit. Any guest coming into your home should be part of your quarantine bubble and should be following the same rules as everyone else.
- Decide on a quarantine plan, including how you will take care of roommates who get infected.
- If possible, agree to never be in common areas (like bathrooms and kitchens) at the same time, and designate study areas for each roommate so you aren’t overlapping spaces.
- Determine a cleaning schedule, including how you plan to regularly sanitize common surfaces, especially those that are high-touch, including handles and door knobs, light and fan switches, remote controls, microwaves, etc.
- Agree on what’s acceptable in terms of socializing and going out. Even if one roommate goes to a bar or a party, for example, they risk infecting everyone else in the home. You can also check guidance from your school and local government.
Roommates should also get tested regularly. If testing is not readily available, consider purchasing thermometers and doing regular temperature checks at home. Keeping windows open as much as possible can improve circulation, which may help suppress the spread of COVID-19 indoors (even a light breeze can help, according to Carlson). The more time you spend outdoors (while practicing social distancing), the less likely you are to contract or spread the virus, she added.
2. Who is allowed to visit?
Perhaps the most important issue roommates will need to agree on is who will be allowed to visit, said Carlson.
“I think this is the stickiest of all of them, really,” she said. “It's not just that you're overlapping with the other two or three people in your space, it's that you're overlapping their entire social circle. And that's what makes that circle grow so large so quickly, and that's what's dangerous."
Carlson also emphasized the importance of discussing upfront and agreeing who can enter your bubble and who can’t. For example, she said, “If you're going to have your significant other over, let's talk about their social circle — How many people are they exposed to? — before we agree that they can come into our circle. If that person lives alone, maybe the person can go stay with them more often. You kind of have to figure out what's gonna work in any given situation.”
Among the house rules that Nash and her roommates discussed, whether to let others into the apartment was a primary concern, since one of her roommates has a boyfriend. Nash said they agreed that if he is allowed inside, he needs to follow the same “be-smart rules” as the roommates.
“We just kind of decided he's one of our pack, our group of people, that he has to be safe, too, if he's going to come into our house all the time,” she said.
McClary will share a medium-size dorm room with a track teammate, who has a girlfriend. He said they agreed that no one, including the girlfriend, will be allowed to visit.
“As of right now, nobody is coming to our room,” said McClary. “If they want to see us, Facetime us, Zoom us, but nobody is coming into our room.”
3. How should roommates help each other if one gets sick?
Aside from establishing a guest policy, the next important thing you’ll want to establish before moving in together is what to do if a roommate gets infected. The sick roommate will need to quarantine and stay out of common areas as much as possible, said Carlson. This means that roommates will need to agree on how to help each other, she said.
“One of the things we should communicate about in advance is what happens if somebody gets sick? Because you may be living with people who it isn't their first priority to be taking care of someone who's sick, and it's a different way than your family would think about taking care of you if you were sick. So agreeing upfront how you're going to help each other is important,” she said.
Here are some guidelines from Carlson and the CDC for dealing with sick roommates:
- As soon as one of you tests positive or develops symptoms, quarantine to the best of your ability.
- Even if just one of you is sick, you should all wear masks inside the apartment, especially the infected person.
- According to the CDC, only one person in a household should be designated to take care of an infected person, if possible.
- Ideally, the infected person will have their own bedroom and bathroom. If there is only one bathroom, it should be sanitized after the sick roommate uses it. If the infected person is too ill to do so on their own, a roommate will need to do it for them. Wait as long as possible before cleaning the bathroom after an infected person uses it, and wear a mask and gloves.
- A roommate will need to wash the infected person’s laundry (wearing a mask and gloves). Be sure to follow proper CDC guidelines.
- Establish how you plan to get meals to the infected person. Bring their food in disposable containers like paper plates and plastic utensils, and give them a garbage bag to keep in their room (it’ll help avoid having to wash dirty dishes that are contaminated). Leave meals outside their door and knock.
- To keep your campus safe, all roommates should agree to quarantine for up to 14 days (according to CDC guidelines), or until everyone tests negative.
Carlson said it’s important that all roommates quarantine even if only one has the virus. “That's maybe a hard message for people to understand, if they're exposed to someone who's sick, well, they've been exposed and they need to quarantine too,” she said.
Dealing with worried parents
Of all the anxiety college students have around COVID-19, the potential of bringing the virus back to their parents and grandparents, who are at an increased risk for serious illness, is perhaps the most nail-biting of all.
Parents of college students are also experiencing anxiety, according to Feliciano. Many feel the need to control their children’s decisions around what to do if cases rise on campus, and even be at their bedsides, she said, but she said parents should not take that risk.
“Really try to be empathetic to what your kids are going through and involve them as much as possible in the decision-making process, because I think so many parents are acting out of their own anxiety when it comes to this and their children,” Feliciano said.
Nash said her parents asked her to come home if there’s an outbreak in Bloomington; she told them if there is an outbreak, she will be staying.
“It's an awkward situation, sort of, but I'm 21 years old. I can kind of make my own decisions on that one,” said Nash. “And the amount of anxiety I would have coming back to my house in comparison to staying where I am is so great that I would just much rather stay in Bloomington, even if things are getting bad.”
Julie Compton is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.