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Safe social distancing depends on students' decisions

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 11/12/2020 By Tamara Kamis, iGeneration Youth
a group of people in a room: Despite the risks, some students are still going to parties in the time of COVID-19. © Kavya Annapareddy/iGeneration Youth/TNS Despite the risks, some students are still going to parties in the time of COVID-19.

Moriah Adeghe, a senior at Cornell University, lives with five other undergraduate women in an apartment in Collegetown, across the bridge over the Cascadilla Creek Gorge that divides the neighborhood from campus.

At the start of the semester in September, the six housemates met to set rules for staying safe during the pandemic. They agreed to limit the number of people they spend time with outside the apartment, avoid visiting other people’s living spaces, and check with each other before making choices that involve a raised level of risk.

“We talked about having guests over, and we decided that we would always text in our group chat ahead of time to make sure that it was fine with everyone,” said Adeghe, who is studying policy analysis and management.

Choices that result in failure to stick to the rules have spread the coronavirus throughout school populations and host communities beyond campus. College students aren’t the only ones at fault. The renewed rise in the rate of infection across the United States reflects the fact that many people are not making safe choices, refusing to wear masks and downplaying their effectiveness, hosting large weddings and crowding in restaurants and bars. In addition, COVID-19 is spreading in workplaces, prisons, and nursing homes, in part due to unsafe management practices.

But students who opted to return to their schools this semester agreed to live in a modified bubble with testing and disciplinary measures, including expulsion, if they flout the rules. Compliance is easier said than done, because young people naturally want to be around others their age.

While they can make good decisions under the right circumstances, reopening colleges with in-person classes and dormitory living did not set up students to succeed, said Dr. Gail Rosenbaum, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University studying adolescent risk-taking and brain development. She said young people’s still-growing brains may make it harder to behave correctly under the current social and emotional conditions.

“There’s actually evidence to suggest that the regions of the brain that are important in adult-like decision making develop in the mid- to late 20s,” said Rosenbaum. “When there’s not a lot of heightened emotions, when adolescents have time to deliberate and think through their actions, then they’re often able to make adult-like decisions. But when they’re in the presence of peers, when they’re in heightened emotional contexts, that’s when their decision-making often breaks down.”

Social norms that encourage limiting risk-taking, like Adeghe’s agreement with her roommates, are key to responsible group behavior, according to Dr. William Sonnenstuhl, who recently retired from an organizational behavior faculty position at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He also expressed concern about students who are predisposed to substance dependency. “You can talk to them about COVID, and you can talk to them about responsible drinking, but they still may have difficulties,” he said.

In addition to taking cues from peers, many also learn about the risks of COVID-19 from experience. A teenager with a relative or friend who contracted COVID-19 might behave differently than someone who doesn’t know anyone who got sick with the deadly disease, said Rosenbaum.

Adeghe said overestimating the protective ability of the university’s regular testing led some of her peers to take risks.

“I wish that people weren’t relying so much on a negative test to just hang out with as many people as they want,” said Adeghe, who grew up in Pennsylvania. “Keeping your circles small should always be the goal, regardless of whether or not people have a negative test.”

Many college students across the country chose to take a leave of absence or remote classes from home rather than take the risks that come with a return to school on campus. Others have no choice but to stay home because their college only offers online classes this semester.

Mercedes Molloy, a sophomore at the New School in New York City, is taking classes online at her family home in Scotts Valley, California. She is minimizing contact with people outside the family and encourages her friends to stay safe.

“I try to explain to them to look beyond themselves, and that it’s not necessarily about what their wants or desires; they have to think about others first,” said Molloy.

Tamara Kamis is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Lexington, Massachusetts. Read more stories at


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