COVID-19 and the college experience

Everyone seems to be walking about in disbelief. College educators and administrators are shocked. Public health officials are incredulous. Politicians are confused, and news reporters are busily shaking their heads at the numbers. Physicians, my colleagues across the country, are beside themselves. And all of this head-scratching and hand-wringing is because students went back to their colleges and universities and behaved like, you know, students at college and universities.

And then what happened?

COVID-19 broke out on campus. Apparently, nobody imagined this would happen. Except for those of us who expected it would happen. But all the best thinkers seemed to hope against hope that it wouldn’t.

But seriously, people, why wouldn’t students gather together?

Let’s think about this, shall we? College and university students tend to go to school, in part, for “the experience.” That experience is heavily marketed to prospective students.

Any parent who has taken a child on a college tour will recall the emphasis on dining opportunities, stylish dorms, clubs, athletic events, and study abroad programs.

In an age when the sum of the world’s knowledge is available on one’s mobile device, the “experience” is necessary to justify the vast amounts of treasure that families are willing to hand over for their progeny to be properly educated and culturally vetted.

Not only is this idea heavily marketed by schools themselves, but it is also emphasized in books, videos, movies, and television. The keg party, the Greek rush, tail-gaiting, games, bar scenes, and dorm activities have all become part of our American higher education narrative. For better (and often for worse), this is considered at least as important as learning.

It reminds me a little of our family experience with homeschooling. When we decided to educate the kids at home, we faced this question over and over: “But what about socialization?” Concerned friends and family expressed their fears that our children would be raised like wolves, unable to navigate normal human interaction without the guidance of other children. (There’s a bit of a laugh if you know children.)

Homeschool families still face this question. In addition, college-bound youth from every kind of educational setting, whether public, private, or home, are urged to engage in sports, volunteerism, lessons, and myriad activities, illustrating the apparently unquestionable fact that “socialization” goes hand-in-glove with proper academics.

So nobody should be surprised that this semester, students went to college, met together, and, in the process, spread an infectious disease that is already in the populace. The fact is, students have been looking forward to the social interactions of university life since someone first told them they should go to college.

As if to make social interactions even more inevitable, they are away from home, lonely, and often depressed and anxious. (Anxiety is rampant on college campuses these days, by the way.)

Isolation can be terrifying for these young people, and gathering together is a kind of solace in the midst of what they have been told is a very dangerous and uncertain time. It is also a way of declaring their own youthful invincibility, their own way of thumbing their noses at the troubles of the times. Maybe, it is their own protest against the seemingly endless incursions coronavirus (and therefore government) have made on their sense of normalcy and what should be their natural hopefulness.

The unfortunate reality in the midst of this is that university students across the country are forced to live in a strange state of limbo. They check school updates every week to see if they will be back in class “in person,” and what sorts of measures (from social distancing to frequent testing) will be implemented to protect them from COVID-19.

Students are doing their best to navigate higher education in the venerable halls of their personal lap-tops and smart-phones, rolling out of bed for Zoom meetings, and trying to understand the moving targets of online syllabi, tests, and lesson plans. For some, it is a serene time to stay in the apartment or dormitory while learning. For others, it is a nightmare of inadequate bandwidth, unclear expectations, and instructors unaccustomed to virtual teaching. Many students don’t learn well online and would much prefer to learn face-to-face with a professor who is physically in front of the class or lab.

Schools are aggressively enforcing the rules, quarantining students who test positive and fining or (in some cases) expelling those who violate policies regarding parties and other gatherings. Of course, no administrator wants to be blamed for taking COVID-19 lightly. Thus, the quarantines, testing, fines, and expulsions will continue. (Ostensibly, until COVID-19 is eradicated from planet earth, which may be a very, very long time.)

Physicians like me are always expected to preface opinions about COVID-19. Yes, for some people, it is very dangerous. And yes, limiting the spread of the infection has value. This is not to deny those facts.

Nevertheless, we should pity the poor, modern student of higher education who is in a pandemic induced conundrum. They have worked to go to college, they (or their parents) have saved and taken loans so that they could learn and live the college life. But suddenly, all of their glorious expectations have been delayed indefinitely.

I don’t know the answer.

Odds are, if I did, nobody would care unless the answer was, “Stay inside, don’t go anywhere, don’t touch anything, we’ll let you know when you can come out.” But I do know that nobody (but nobody) should have been surprised that the virus would spread on campuses or that students would do what students have always done. And what we have consistently told them to do. One would think that college-educated experts would have seen this coming a mile away.

University students need to be treated with appropriate, reasonable caution. But they also deserve our compassion. Because this is uncharted territory for them as it is for everyone else, and while it is memorable and historical, it’s also an “experience” they’d rather not have.

Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at and is the author of the Practice Test and Life in Emergistan

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