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With the end of summer drawing near, college students and their parents are preparing for a new semester. But for most, going back to school this year will likely look a lot different amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Some colleges and universities are reopening as fully virtual this fall, while others will offer a mix of both online and in-person classes. Those that are choosing to invite students back to campus are doing so with strict sanitation procedures in place along with new changes, like reduced class sizes, solo dorm rooms, and limited dining options. Some are even closing campus after fall break to reduce any risk from out-of-state students who are traveling.
Hannah Grice, a junior at Stevenson University in Baltimore (one of the schools that is only open through fall break) says that all of her classes—with the exception of two—will be online. And while she’s somewhat hesitant, she’s excited to return to the classroom. “With mask precautions in place, I’m not super nervous. I’ve kind of acclimated to the new normal and prefer having classes in person, where I can focus better and get one-on-one instruction,” she explains.
Grice isn’t the only one with mixed feelings about the back-to-school season this year. As colleges and universities across the country debate whether or not to reopen their doors come September, many students and parents alike are asking the question: How safe is it to return to campus? Below is everything you need to know about going back to school during the pandemic, according to experts.
What does the CDC say about going back to college?
Whether or not it’s safe to return to campus depends on a number of factors, including the size of the school, its geographic location, and whether the school is offering in-person classes, opening dorms, etc. “The more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains on its website. “The risk of COVID-19 spread increases in non-residential and residential (i.e., on-campus housing) settings.”
To help keep students and faculty safe, the CDC provides a set of guidelines and best practices for colleges and universities that include limiting class sizes, requiring face masks, thoroughly sanitizing public spaces, and encouraging social distancing. However, there is still some risk involved in returning to campus, say experts like Ashanti Wood, MD, at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “As students will be coming to a centralized location from different areas of the country—including some hot spots—in-person classes pose a risk,” Dr. Wood explains, noting that online classes and virtual instruction remain the safer option.
How can students stay safe on campus?
If you’re a student whose school is reopening this fall, there are certain precautions you should take to protect both yourself and those around you. Before you move in, contact your college or university to find out what safety procedures are in place. Some schools have reserved move-in times for each student and family so you aren’t sharing carts or elevators with other students. If that isn’t available, choose to move in at a time when campus is less crowded (such as early morning or later in the evening) to reduce your interaction with others.
Both Dr. Wood and the CDC urge students to practice social distancing on campus—stay a minimum of six feet apart from others—and to always wear a face mask, even if it’s not mandated by the university. (Our experts tested some of the most popular face coverings and found these 10 masks to be the best.) When in a dorm room or classroom, open a window when possible to increase ventilation. And wash your hands—or use hand sanitizer—as much as possible. You should also wipe down your space (like your desk and chair) before and after sitting down in class with disinfecting wipes.
Additionally, avoid large gatherings or parties (more than 10 people) and crowded indoor spaces, like gyms or communal living areas in a dorm. And when it comes to on-campus dining, Dr. Wood strongly encourages students to avoid any buffet food and to choose carryout options rather than eating in a dining hall or restaurants.
What should students bring with them?
Besides a face covering, Dr. Wood recommends always having hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes on hand to use if you’re a student out and about on campus. Choose a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol per the CDC’s guidelines. You’ll also want to make sure you’re stocked up with all of the necessary supplies like a laptop, pens, and notebooks, as the CDC advises against sharing supplies to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
For your dorm room, Dr. Wood suggests using a bath caddy to store all of your toiletries so that they aren’t touching the surface of a shared bathroom. He also says to keep basic cleaning supplies on hand, along with a thermometer and over-the-counter medication (e.g., Tylenol or anti-nausea medicine) in case you aren’t feeling well and have to self-isolate.
Regardless, remember that doing something—like wearing a mask or sanitizing your hands—is always better than doing nothing. “Be safe but don’t freak out, and use common sense,” Dr. Wood says.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College 2020: How to send your kids safely to school during the pandemic