Students walk through the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill on August 18, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Melissa Sue Gerrits | Getty Images
Life in college in 2020 bears little resemblance to the experience most students were hoping for.
Many stayed at home to take part in virtual classes. Others are back on campus for a mix of in-person and online courses. Some had to be quarantined for a few weeks once they got back on campus. Most take precautions in how they interact with other students.
But headlines tell a different story. The endless media coverage has indicated that there is wild partying on campus and off campus despite social distancing guidelines aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus. In response, many college administrators have publicly announced that they have taken tough measures to address this type of behavior by suspending students or evicting those who held meetings in dormitories.
"If you look at public opinion, I have a strong feeling that college students get a bad rap if they don't care about someone and really just look after themselves," said Jessi Gold, assistant professor in the department for Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "There's this belief that all they want to do is go out and drink and be selfish and spread Covid-19," she said.
"Survival is different from life"
CNBC spoke to students across the country who called this type of behavior the exception – not the norm. Instead, many students take Covid-19 seriously and forego the opportunity to make friends through college sports or large gatherings.
"When I first got to campus, I was quarantined for two weeks," said Kyra Kushner, a freshman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. "I haven't had any physical contact or really a lot of friends, so I reached out to my building's group chat and suggested we have a virtual game night."
Additionally, many students state that their peers, for the most part, take the precautions seriously.
"At my college, I would say that social distancing and masks are at least 90% respected," said Caleb Bitting, a student who recently returned to Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
These stories are a far cry from the prevailing narrative that colleges struggle to monitor young people's behavior.
In Bitting's view, this may be the case for some locations. But he said Colby regularly communicates with students on lower-risk ways of socializing, such as taking walks outdoors. In August, the college reported that only three students and two employees tested positive for the virus after the school tested more than 6,000 people. In response, the school asked these three students to quarantine themselves.
Meanwhile, at the University of Alabama, where Ainsley Platt is a student, more than 2,000 students, faculty and other staff have tested positive for the virus.
Platt, who is in a sorority, said she and her sisters in the Greek community took the virus seriously – and sometimes they feel like they are more concerned about Covid-19 than the school itself. "I see not much enforcement, "she said. "I see students walking around the campus without a mask all the time."
Platt said she would be uncomfortable asking other students to take precautions. But she hopes that she won't have to return home in the middle of the semester because her parents have health risks and they don't want to endanger them. At home, she spent a lot of time indoors in the summer. "Survival is different from life," she said.
Psychiatrists say it's not good to simply blame students for outbreaks. Many of them take the virus seriously, but there are inevitable challenges that arise as hundreds, if not thousands, of young people are brought back to campus. Lately, campuses are fueling a large portion of the current Covid-19 outbreaks. USA Today released an analysis earlier this week showing college communities represent 19 of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the country.
Still, colleges should communicate with students about how to be safe and help them get to know each other and connect. You should also be clear about what the public health guidelines are so that students don't feel like they have to call each other.
In addition, as Gold pointed out, many of the young adults cited as the main drivers behind the spread of Covid-19 are disproportionately on the frontline and indispensable workforce in many industries. Young people are more likely to work in retail stores or restaurants, she said, and some of them are doing shifts where they can to help them pay their expensive tuition.
"I think most students are really trying to be safe," said Arden Wolf, who attends Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
The exception might be the newbie, who is more inclined to throw parties because they don't have many friends on campus, Wolf said. But she said her college was quick to respond to reports.
One thing that her school could do better is to send out emails about the coronavirus that are more transparent and easier to read. She also suggested that schools could provide more information on safe socializing as many suffer from "zoom fatigue".
More empathy, less guilt
According to Wolf, there is a misconception that students like her are indifferent to whether or not they get the coronavirus. Some students are at risk themselves and may have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Others are nervous about passing the virus on to their family members when they suddenly return home after an outbreak.
"I don't want to catch the virus or give it to other people who live with me," she said.
Mental health experts agree that college students need more empathy and less guilt. Marcia Morris, a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, said "students have problems".
She can't think of any other time when life on campus was so challenging, except for the global recession in 2008 when many families in Florida lost their homes. Morris has worked with students since the early 1990s.
"Face-to-face conviviality is critical to mental health and well-being," she said.
"So what needs to happen is that campus leaders work with student organizations to educate the students and provide them with safe opportunities for social interaction, be it a socially distant movie night, a walk with a friend, or a virtual event . "
Morris said students should not be "demonized" even if they break the rules, as such punitive methods are unlikely to change behavior.
“I feel for the students, and I see most of them try to be careful,” she said. "These young people are suffering because they are trying to start their lives and find out who they really are, but it is a difficult time to do so."