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Opinion: As colleges reopen, millions of students will be on the move. Get ready.

A former college president notes that about half of U.S. campuses plan to open with face-to-face instruction.  Harris Pastides, president emeritus of the University of South Carolina says: "If one considers that there are about 20 million college students in the United States, we are about to see a huge wave of relocation."  (AP Photo/Joan Mateu)
A former college president notes that about half of U.S. campuses plan to open with face-to-face instruction. Harris Pastides, president emeritus of the University of South Carolina says: "If one considers that there are about 20 million college students in the United States, we are about to see a huge wave of relocation." (AP Photo/Joan Mateu)

Credit: Joan Mateu

Credit: Joan Mateu

President emeritus of University of South Carolina: Enlist students to combat coronavirus

Harris Pastides is president emeritus of the University of South Carolina. He served as the 28th president from 2008 until 2019. Among his degrees: a master’s in public health and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Yale University.

In this guest column, Pastides says millions of young people will be returning to college campuses in the next few weeks, raising the risk of coronavirus. He says colleges ought to enlist students in the effort to reduce new infections.

By Harris Pastides

I stepped down as a university president exactly one year ago. I always thought that I would write a book, and the one I’m working on is called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” It’s about student behaviors, many of which are impulsive, and the repercussions of them on the university and broader community.

Fundamentally, college students are passionate, spirited, hard-working, and determined to make the most of their college years. Yet, as psychologists tell us, they have healthy doses of invincibility, immortality, and illusions of safety in a dangerous world. This leads to risky behaviors of all kinds but the ones that worry me now are ignoring our recommendations of spatial isolation from friends, and wearing masks, especially in close, social circles.

Our nation is roughly a month away from the reopening of colleges and the most recent survey indicates that 50% are planning to open with mainly face-to-face instruction, one third in a hybrid format, and 12% fully online. If one considers that there are about 20 million college students in the United States, we are about to see a huge wave of relocation.

Dr. Harris Pastides
Dr. Harris Pastides

Students from big cities will be moving to large universities, often located in towns or rural areas where they double or triple the local population, places like Amherst, Mass., State College, Pa., College Station, Texas, and many others. Many other students will relocate to our nation’s largest cities to attend the diverse array of institutions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and others.

Surely, some students will arrive by car but many others will fly to their college homes away from home. Since pandemic control measures started earlier this year, the United States has not experienced such a large, demographic shift. COVID-19 may not be the most virulent disease we’ve ever faced, but it’s among the most wily and surreptitious, marked by the potential for significant spread by asymptomatic young people. There’s no need to blame or even further stereotype college students but we need to use what we know about their beliefs and behaviors to improve the way we educate them about their role and responsibilities in the present crisis.

The risk behaviors of many college students have been influenced positively in the recent past, witness the declining rates of unplanned pregnancy, increased awareness of sexual assault issues, improved adherence to rideshare safety protocols, and the near universal use of seat belts. Surely, we can do a good job with COVID-19 prevention but it won’t be easy. Let’s recruit students themselves, and other behavioral and marketing experts to develop successful campaigns. We are all depending on this.

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