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With the new school year just a few weeks away and coronavirus cases on the rise, many college and university presidents have shared ambitious plans for a never-before-executed fall semester. Students will have to wear masks in class, keep social distance as much as possible, get tested for Covid-19 and more to prevent spreading the virus. The plans are lengthy and detailed, and many of the new rules seem tough to follow, which makes you wonder: What do students think of these plans?

Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, decided to try to find out. She and her graduate assistant, Laurie Groshon, have spent the last few weeks conducting online focus groups with University of Connecticut students to learn what they think about the university’s Covid-19 prevention strategies and what students are realistically willing to do to keep campus safe. Some of what students shared might seem disappointing, but much of it was surprising and positive.

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“I shared my focus group script with probably at least 30 people who are going to do this work on their campuses.”  

Sherry Pagoto, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, who surveyed students through focus groups

On July 11, Pagoto wrote a Twitter thread about some of her findings, and the thread soon went viral. Her first tweet was retweeted more than 7,000 times and liked about 9,000 times.

Pagoto and Groshon conducted interviews with six or seven focus groups, with each group having between four and seven students, most of whom were undergraduates. On Twitter, Pagoto shared that students are especially doubtful about the university’s 14-day required on-campus quarantine for residential students before the start of classes. “Every student we asked said that this is not realistic and will likely fail,” Pagoto wrote. “They pointed out that students are eager to see each other and will find a way to do so when they arrive on campus. They said that students who live 1-2 hours away will try to find a way to go home. They said off campus students will likely find their way on campus.”

The focus groups also weighed in on symptom tracking through mobile apps and wearing masks in social settings. Their responses could give the university reason to worry.

Students are afraid of being automatically quarantined if they report symptoms, and said “unless their symptoms were severe and unusual, they might not report them,” Pagoto wrote. And as for mask wearing, “They said it will depend on the social norms of the group. Many said students should hold each other accountable but weren’t sure how to do this.”

Related: While focus is on fall, students’ choices about college will have a far longer impact

But the students were also creative and thoughtful. While they said the prospect of 14 days of doing nothing in quarantine was not appealing, they did share ideas of how the university could make that period more enjoyable. They suggested online trivia nights, having professors put out readings for them and mask-making contests, Pagoto said in an interview this week.

“They liked the idea of students live-streaming to show off their talents, like maybe the acapella groups or musicians or fine arts students could do live streams of whatever their craft is,” she said.

They also pointed out that there needs to be some accountability for older members of campus.

“They said, ‘You know, you guys are asking us about wearing masks, you’re asking us about quarantines,’ and they said ‘You know, it’s hard for us and we see adults who are much older than us who aren’t doing those things,’” Pagoto said.

Students also fear being reprimanded for not following rules to the T and suggested the university reward them for good behavior. Pagoto said it’s important for colleges and universities to work toward getting rid of the stigma that’s come with having the coronavirus and to show empathy to students, who are often categorized as not taking the disease seriously. They’ve suffered a lot in the last few months and genuinely want campus reopenings to be a success, she said.

Related: Quarantine campuses: With dorms shut and class online, students DIY college life

Institutions should be “leaving an open door for people to express how they’re feeling about it, acknowledging that students have lost something, and they are really bummed out about that,” Pagoto said. “I think that is what they really wanted to hear.”

Pagoto said she doesn’t know of other universities that have conducted similar focus groups, but that may soon change. “I shared my focus group script with probably at least 30 people who are going to do this work on their campuses,” she said.

She recommends all institutions conduct focus groups for students to better understand their concerns and ideas for returning to campus.

“That exercise of bringing students in and listening to them, I can tell you they very much appreciated it, that they got a say and their voice is being heard and their suggestions being considered,” she said.

This story about the fall semester was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she spent a year studying how top-tier universities...

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