What Doctors Say to Do to Avoid Catching COVID-19 at College

Getting an education shouldn't be a death sentence.

For students everywhere, “back to school” probably looks a little different this year. HelloGiggles’ Going Off Book is about showcasing the changing face of higher ed and reminding us all that there’s no one “right” way to spend a semester, whether you’re heading off to a college campus, taking classes at home, or taking the time to figure out your next steps.

Rylee Feliczak, 18, is a first-time college student preparing to move into her freshman dorm at Michigan State University in less than 30 days. Just like thousands of other college freshmen, she’s eagerly anticipated this experience for much of her life, but now that the world is in the grip of a global pandemic, heading to college is looking a lot different from how she envisioned it.

For one thing, Feliczak’s packed course schedule, which would normally be comprised of all in-person classes, now features classes that are either completely virtual or hybrid in nature. For another, instead of planning tailgate parties and study groups, the teen is planning on keeping her distance from friends and classmates when she arrives on campus. Her freshman year, at least for the foreseeable future, is shaping up to be more isolated than she could have ever imagined. 

“I’m a little antsy about starting college during COVID-19,” Feliczak says, speaking to HelloGiggles. “It’s typical to be a little anxious about starting college, but it’s a whole new scenario with a global pandemic going on.”

When school starts, Feliczak plans on staying vigilant about her safety, since the fear of getting sick and being forced to quarantine away from her family is at the forefront of her mind. “I have a handful of masks I will be wearing, and I plan on being extra cautious of what is going on around me, so staying away from crowds, monitoring my temperature, and things like that,” she explains. “I have to be aware not only for my own safety, but for the safety of others around me.” 

Safety and preparedness aren’t just students’ responsibilities though. Universities across the country are initiating new policies to keep their residents healthy, from instituting virtual classes, to limiting building capacity, to giving out health surveys and temperature readings on a regular basis. At Harvard, for instance, the university’s Arts and Sciences College announced that campus access will be restricted “to safeguard community health,” only committing to bringing 40% of undergraduates back to campus this fall. The University of Southern California, meanwhile, has announced “primarily or exclusively” online courses come fall, with a recommendation to undergraduates to “reconsider living on or close to campus this semester.” New York University will be instituting a “daily COVID-19 screener,” in which members of the community must fill out a brief health questionnaire in order to be admitted to campus facilities, while other universities, like the University of Central Florida, are taking a look at HVAC systems to reduce the risk of airborne transmission. 

Precautions like these may be necessary, but they’ll undoubtedly change the traditional landscape of higher education for Feliczak and countless other students—for better or for worse. “I’m hopeful, because I know I’m not alone in this. There are tons and tons of people feeling just like I am,” she says.

So, what can students like Feliczak expect when they get to campus this fall, and—more importantly—what can they do to keep themselves safe? We asked an epidemiologist and a medical doctor to get their advice. 

Stay six feet apart from others 

At this point in the pandemic, we’re all familiar with one of the most basic rules for COVID-19 prevention, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—staying six feet apart from others. Social distancing is an intrinsic element in slowing the spread of the disease, and it’ll be crucial on college campuses. According to Shira Shafir, PhD, a member of the epidemiology department faculty at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, students should “maintain social distancing at all times, which means staying at least six feet away from anyone with whom the student doesn’t live.”

Many schools are putting rigid social distancing policies in place for on-site students, which means they can expect to be seated at least six feet away from their classmates at all times. New York University, for example, says on its website that they are “reconfiguring classrooms, labs, hallways, and building entrances and exits” to comply with distancing guidelines. At UCLA, even though only 8% of fall term courses will be in-person or hybrid in nature, the university says on its website that they will ensure physical distancing and “de-densifying” measures. 

So while it might sound obvious, it bears repeating: stay away from large gatherings if you can, including events, large-scale meetings, and yes, parties. But the truth is, these gatherings might not even exist in the first place. USA Today reported that if students throw or attend parties with more than 15 people at Tulane University in New Orleans, for instance, they’ll be suspended or expelled. The same is the case for other campuses across America.

If you have FOMO over not being able to go to parties, consider holding a virtual meet-up with other students in your clubs or organizations (like Cornell University suggests here). No matter what, continue keeping a safe distance from friends by following the CDC’s mandates.

how to stay safe on campus, coronavirus

Clean dorm rooms and common areas often.

When it comes to student living spaces, cleanliness is more important now than ever, especially since recent research by the National Institutes of Health has found the virus can remain stable on surfaces for an extended period of time (up to 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel).

If you can afford a single dorm room, take advantage of the opportunity. “Obviously living without a roommate is ideal,” says Arielle Levitan, MD, and co-founder of Vous Vitamin. But if you must live with roommates, she recommends frequently wiping down shared surfaces, and considering getting a HEPA filter for the air. Research on the efficacy of HEPA filters and coronavirus prevention is currently limited, but based on what’s known about other viruses, these types of air purifiers may be helpful in removing droplets from the air, thus limiting the risk for transmission. 

In addition to encouraging students to clean their dorm rooms, colleges are taking precautionary measures to keep other shared spaces clean and safe. “Traditional college dormitories were definitely not made for social distancing,” Dr. Shafir says. “In light of the current situation, many colleges and universities are taking a look at their housing and making adjustments. On many campuses, this means that communal spaces (like kitchens and rec rooms) will be closed and the dorms may have many fewer residents than usual.” 

At UCLA, single occupancy rooms will be available in residence halls for individual students to live in, however, double or triple the furniture (i.e. extra beds) may still occupy the space. And at NYU, fewer students will be assigned per residence hall floor in order to keep student interactions at a minimum. As for all other institutions of higher learning, the CDC has laid out risk level considerations in regards to residence halls. The lowest risk, according to the CDC, is when residence halls are closed when feasible. When residence halls are open at limited capacity, the CDC classifies it as “more risk,” and when they’re open at full capacity, that’s where the CDC assigns “highest risk.” 

Before a student heads to campus, they should research and get in touch with their college’s safety department to find out the school’s cleaning and safety policies for preventing COVID-19.

Wear a cloth face mask. 

According to the CDC, face coverings are an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, because they limit the potential for the virus to spread in respiratory droplets when a person either coughs, sneezes, or talks. In other words, they protect those around us in case we’ve become infected. Because the potential for infection is increased in close set communities of people, “it’s particularly important to wear a mask at all times when [students] are out of their dorm rooms,” Dr. Shafir says.

Since masks should be “changed and washed regularly,” as Dr. Shafir notes, she suggests you bring multiple masks to campus with you, rotate them in and out, and keep track of how often (and how well) they’re washed. “This allows a student to wear their masks as they need to while not having to do laundry every day,” she explains.

And keep in mind that not all masks are created equal. While the CDC does recommend wearing cloth masks, several studies have found that masks made with multiple layers are clear winners in preventing the virus from spreading. Also, make sure your mask doesn’t have a valve. These valves help release unfiltered air, but they don’t protect others from getting COVID.

Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly.  

Whenever you leave your dorm, you should wash your hands thoroughly before and after. “Twenty seconds with soap and water is really important,” Dr. Shafir says. “If handwashing isn’t possible, then an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good back-up option. Students should also avoid touching their hands to their face, nose, and mouth.” 

If you’re thinking you can skip the handwashing and sanitizing by wearing gloves, we have some bad news for you. The CDC only recommends wearing gloves when you’re cleaning or caring for someone who is sick. Wearing gloves all day on campus will actually help spread germs if you’re not using them properly, as any germs that might be on your gloves (from touching your pens, phone, etc.) will easily transfer to other objects if you don’t change them on a regular basis.

Stock up on essential items before move-in. 

An easy way to prepare for move-in day is to purchase any necessary health-related items ahead of time. “My recommendations would be to stock up on soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and cloth masks,” Dr. Shafir says.

Dr. Levitan adds that she recommends also buying a thermometer, pulse oximeter, and over-the-counter pain reliever before moving onto campus. It’s also a good idea to become aware of your school’s health services and possibly get in touch with a campus doctor, nurse, and/or therapist ahead of time to prepare for potential health issues. You can usually find this information by going directly to your college’s website or calling the directory.

Don’t share materials. 

One of the simplest ways to protect your health as well as the health of others is to minimize the sharing of materials. That means keeping your textbooks to yourself, not sharing notes (unless they’re digital), and keeping all other academic materials such as pens and pencils separate and sanitized. Since the virus can live on surfaces, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to sharing and exchanging items. 

If you must share something, or perhaps you momentarily forgot and lent your textbook to someone, wash your hands and disinfect the object with a household spray or wipe upon return—and definitely before touching your face.

Manage your stress.

College is stressful enough without the complications of a global pandemic adding fuel to the fire. If you are feeling extra anxiety about returning to campus, or if your anxiety is interfering with your daily life, know that you’re not alone and that there’s absolutely no shame in seeking help.

“[Heightened anxiety] is a common issue these days, and many therapists have expertise in coaching and counseling on this,” Dr. Levitan says. A therapist can help you in a multitude of ways, whether by teaching you anxiety management techniques, encouraging healthy coping mechanisms, or simply lending a helpful, professional, and supportive ear. Popular anxiety management techniques include cultivating a regular sleep schedule, staying active, staying connected (even if that means through FaceTime or Zoom), and engaging in activities that bring you joy.

how to stay safe on campus, coronavirus

Monitor your health. 

Monitoring your health, and staying home when you don’t feel well is paramount—even if it means you’ll miss an important test or event. “If a student isn’t feeling well it’s very important not to go to class in person,” Dr. Shafir says. “A lot of campuses will also be requiring daily temperature checks and/or daily symptom self-monitoring and reporting. It’s important for students to comply with these requirements because they help keep the entire dorm safe,” she adds. After all, your health and the health of other students and professors matters more than maintaining a perfect attendance record.

Instead of pushing through your symptoms and heading into class at the risk of exposing others, email your professor to explain your absence and monitor your symptoms, and look into the procedures that your school and professors have outlined for possible COVID-19 infections. And of course, if you’re at all concerned about your symptoms, seek medical guidance. 

Keep in mind that staying active, prioritizing sleep, and committing to proper nutrition is important to maintaining both your mental and physical health. “I would recommend taking the right vitamins for your individual needs to support immunity,” Dr. Levitan says. “These may include vitamins C and D in varying doses depending on needs.”

This might all feel scary and overwhelming, but Dr. Levitan adds that she wants everyone to remember that although this situation is serious, it’s not all doom and gloom. “I am hopeful this is not a long-term thing and that within 1-2 to years we will be ‘back to normal,’” she says. “With that being said, I think that we will keep some of our new habits re: hand washing, masks in some situations or times of year, and I suspect online classes are here to stay.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, HelloGiggles is committed to providing accurate and helpful coverage to our readers. As such, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, we encourage you to use online resources from CDC,WHO, and local public health departments, and visit our coronavirus hub.

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