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Scattered across Tufts University are reminders for students to socially distance. Signs are staked into the ground and posters are tacked on the walls. On Instagram, students post art that says “Love is staying six feet apart” and suggest alternatives to hugging like an elbow bump or foot tap. Even the statue of Jumbo the Elephant, the university mascot, has a face covering draped under his trunk.
Just down the path from Jumbo senior Kelechi Offor and
junior Deborah Royer sit on the lawn. The friends don’t wear masks with just each other – “but we are distancing!” Royer quickly adds and lets out a bubbling, nervous laugh. They’re on the same campus that they remember from six months ago, but it feels completely different now.
“Coming back has felt like walking on eggshells and like being super conscious of every little thing I do,” Offor says. “When I see someone that I miss, I’m like, ‘I want to hug you.’ I don’t know if I can. So, I have to ask, ‘can I hug you? Is that OK? Can we do that in public? Are people watching?’”
In the spring, students found themselves abruptly cast from campuses due to heightening coronavirus concerns. Now, beginning a new semester in the maw of the pandemic, students make these coronavirus calculations each time they reunite with long absent friends. With them, a new set of norms and taboos around coronavirus safety is taking shape on college campuses.
Offor and Royer say they’re still figuring out what’s acceptable and what isn’t, but there’s already a culture of calling others out when it comes to COVID-19 safety errors. Royer says students gently remind each other when someone’s standing too close or forgotten to don a face mask.
“You just lean and [say] like, ‘Hey – your mask. Can you pull it up a little bit?’” Royer says.
That’s exactly what Tufts University president Dr. Anthony Monaco is counting on students to do. Monaco is under no illusions that students will behave perfectly throughout the entire school year, but he’s hopeful that students’ sense of moral responsibility will drive them to follow the multitude of new coronavirus guidelines and encourage their friends to do the same.
“I think that kind of peer pressure, hopefully good peer pressure, to keep everyone safe will help the compliance enormously,” he says. “I have a great faith in this generation, knowing the students and how they express concern daily for the most vulnerable people of our community.”
As the fall semester continues on, university administrators like Monaco and student groups have both been working to promote this culture around coronavirus safety on campus. While university officials push the schools’ policies on COVID-19 with
signs across campus, student groups plaster flashy decals and stickers in bathrooms and share Instagram posts about coronavirus.
Much of the work is to make coronavirus safety feel like the right thing – and the popular thing – to do, says Mac Wylie, a recent graduate of Boston University and the art director of a student-run coronavirus safety campaign called F*ck It Won’t Cut it.
“Most of the people we talked to really wanted to follow the rules and wanted their friends to, but there was an internal conflict of ‘Oh, maybe it won’t be cool,’” he says. “Part of this campaign was really creating a culture of like – no, safety is cool. Safety is what we should all be striving for, and it’s not a preachy thing.”
Part of the campaign’s work has also been to tackle the COVID-19 unknowns that inevitably arise on a college campus, and providing recommendations the students have sourced from local health experts.
“Like should I be having sex? If I decide to have sex, how can I have safer sex?” says Hannah Schweitzer, a senior at Boston University and manager of the student campaign. “We cover that stuff, and we also help clarify the protocols.”
There are still violations of the rules. Both BU and Tufts officials say there have been a few dozen instances of students failing to follow basic coronavirus precautions – like mask wearing and social distancing. Most of these have been reported by other students and sometimes lead to official citations - which can lead to a suspension if the student accumulates multiple citations. And after Northeastern students were discovered having a party in a local hotel, 11 students were dismissed.
As BU’s dean of students, Kenneth Elmore says he’s prepared to enforce consequences including suspensions, but he’s hoping it won’t come to that.
“I’m not relying on people to police each other, but be good community members to each other. We have to. I can’t be everywhere, my staff can’t, and I don’t know if it’s the right thing for us to be waiting on every corner,” he says.
At Tufts and BU, fewer than 0.1% of students have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, and there have been no large parties at either university – at least that officials are aware of. Students say that there are occasionally rumors of “parties” happening - two frat parties were reported to Boston University and canceled - but they wouldn't want to attend.
After all, Offor points out, as much as she would like to – she definitely wouldn’t go to a party if one happened. The guilt would eat her up, she says.
I wouldn’t take a Snapchat memory or a video or anything. I wouldn’t post it. I feel like my friends would be like, why would you do that?” Offor says, laughing. “Yeah, I’d feel pretty ashamed.”
This article was originally published on September 22, 2020.
This segment aired on September 22, 2020.
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