New lessons on campus: How to stay safe in a pandemic

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

 Riya Chhabra is a public health major at Wayne State University, so she knows to wear a mask, stay six feet apart from others and wash her hands frequently to stay safe from the coronavirus when she returns to campus in the fall.

Chhabra also knows that her fellow classmates have a responsibility to do the same. That's why, as a student ambassador for WSU, Chhabra said she will talk to fellow students if they are not practicing recommended behaviors, and educate them about the importance of keeping themselves and others safe from the virus.

Wayne State student Riya Chhabra is part of a campus effort to encourage responsible practices to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s very important because this pandemic is a situation we’ve never faced before,” said Chhabra, who is WSU's student body president. “We are not only responsible for our own health but others' health. Our actions impact others. As a community, the more we work together, the safer we will stay. And the safer we are, the sooner we can have more normal hangouts.”

The conversation among students that Chhabra plans to have are part of the efforts at WSU, and other colleges and universities, aimed at persuading students and others in the campus community that they have a role to play when they return amid the pandemic.

While universities have been responding to students, families and staff about what they are doing to prepare for a safe return in the fall, officials say the onus is not entirely on the institution.

"We are spending a lot of time on creating a culture of personal and community responsibility, so people do their own self-checks on a daily basis; they do self-isolate, they do wear masks, they do respect each other’s distance,” said Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella.

"No one can really hide from the virus," Mantella continued. "The real key is each one of us taking personal responsibility."

As the novel coronavirus began spreading in Michigan in March, universities were among the first institutions to cancel in-person gatherings, shifting to online learning.

The virus, which became a global pandemic and has claimed the lives of more than 114,000 people in America, led to a shutdown of public life with businesses closing and residents staying in their homes for months to mitigate the disease's spread. Nearly 6,000 people in Michigan have died from the highly contagious virus.

Even before society began to reopen, students and their families began looking to universities to assess their plans for the next academic year. Many universities have already said they plan to bring students back to campus in the fall.

Officials then began talking about what campuses will look like.

Mantella has hosted dozens of virtual town hall meetings to inform the community about what the Grand Rapids university is doing in the midst of the pandemic, including how it is preparing campus for a fall return.

But next week, she plans to pivot the conversation and will begin talking about the responsibilities of students and others.

School officials are having conversations with several student groups and encouraging them to talk with their peers about wearing masks, social distancing and not hosting or attending large parties.

"Otherwise, it is a function of authority, and it should be a function of responsibility," Mantella said.

Loren John Rullman, GVSU's vice provost for student affairs, said the campaign is multifaceted and includes students who are going to work to influence social norms.

"We recognize culture and peers at any points in life are the most powerful shapers of behavior," Rullman said. "The point is to create a shared culture of wellness, respect and accountability."

Several other universities are also creating similar efforts. 

Wayne State is asking students to undergo online training that includes nine strategies for keeping individuals and the campus safe. They also will be asked to undergo daily health screenings, wear masks and comply with signs directing the use of hallways and elevators to maximize social distancing.

Eastern Michigan University is using signs and floor stickers to remind students of safe distancing and Michigan State University is working on a compact for students to sign pledging that they will practice safe behaviors.

"We really need their buy-in," said MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant. "We need students to take this seriously when they come back in the fall."