The University of Texas at Austin is hitting students with a request that, at any other time, would have seemed ridiculous: before classes start, would they please spend fourteen days in self-quarantine before participating in their first on-campus activity? The details accompanying that guidance were downright laid-back—students could perform the self-quarantine at their parents’ houses, or upon arriving in Austin, depending on their circumstances. “We know that everyone’s situation is different,” the message from the university read. “Please make self-quarantine plans in a manner that makes sense for you.”
For there to be a successful fall semester that doesn’t result in an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Austin, self-quarantining is probably necessary. But two weeks of self-isolation is a hell of an ask to make of a group of mostly 18- to 21-year-olds. College is a time of transition, exploration, and self-discovery—all of which is harder to do from one’s bedroom, where incoming college students have been spending a lot more time than usual since March.
For high school and college students alike, in-person classes in the spring semester were canceled. Incoming college freshmen have already missed the end of their senior year of high school—prom, graduation, and all of the other rituals that have existed for generations to send them off into the world—and are now being asked to skip out on experiencing their final two weeks of social life with their friends before they go off to college. For students who’ll have to wait to begin their self-quarantine period until they get to Austin, the expectation is that they’ll hang out in a tiny dorm room or a shared apartment for fourteen straight days. No parties. No keg stands. No ultimate frisbee. No walks in the park. No late-night breakfast tacos with a group of friends you just met. No hilarious rom-com antics where the same person somehow ends up with two dates to the same dance and has to navigate an increasingly complex series of comic pratfalls to keep them from finding out about each other. Should they spend the first two weeks of the semester forgoing those things in the name of public safety? Yeah, absolutely. Is it realistic to expect them to successfully resist every social impulse of youth? Probably not. Nonetheless, that’s the position that UT administrators are putting their students in.
As of early August, Austin’s COVID-19 outbreak has steadily slowed. For much of July, Travis County reported an average of more than five hundred new cases every day, and an average of more than seventy new daily hospitalizations. By the end of the month, though, there were fewer than half as many daily new cases, and the number of Austinites hospitalized had dropped dramatically. The city hasn’t defeated the virus, though—it’s merely slowed its spread, through compliance with mask orders and bar closures, to the point where conditions look like they did in the middle of June. The return of students makes it harder to keep the virus in check. Keep in mind that students will be arriving from other parts of the state and country where the virus is significantly more widespread. Harris County, which sends more students to UT than anywhere else, has fifteen times more active COVID-19 cases than Travis County.
Lauren Ancel Meyers, whose COVID-19 modeling project at UT-Austin has provided projections and analysis to governments and media around the country, says that the university is hopeful that the precautions taken by the university—including the self-quarantine request—will help the university avoid catastrophe, but acknowledges the challenges. “How effective it will be will depend whether the students adhere to the recommendation,” she says. “If the students actually follow the recommendations, we could see a reduction of risk.”
Determining whether to hold in-person classes isn’t an easy decision. The question of what to do with schools and universities is a nationwide problem stemming from our inadequate response to the coronavirus itself. UT administrators didn’t create the circumstances they’re struggling to address, and they are clearly trying to strike the right balance. They’ve put forth a “hybrid” model for instruction: The university is holding its largest courses online, and limiting capacity to 40 percent for the rest. The fall semester will be truncated, ending on November 25, in order to prevent students from bringing the virus back to campus from Thanksgiving celebrations back home. (That plan, of course, won’t prevent students who contract the virus at UT from bringing it back to their families.) Other schools have similar plans—Texas A&M will be doing a shortened semester and limiting in-person class sizes, Sam Houston State will be holding a “blended” semester, and Baylor will be sending each of its 18,000 students a COVID-19 test to take at home, before they return to the university. As at UT, Texas State students are being asked to self-quarantine before classes begin.
Those are good ideas, but they don’t address the reality that college life as we’ve come to know it is fundamentally incompatible with stringent, robust public health measures. A UT policy announced on Friday forbids students from hosting off-campus parties, but included no enforcement mechanism. Bars, in other words, may be closed, but backyard and house parties will almost certainly still happen. Masks may be required in classrooms, but students are going to take them off when they hook up. Football games—football games!—are still on the table, albeit with a diminished stadium capacity, which would still bring between 25,000 and 50,000 fans into a venue with shared bathrooms and lines for concessions. Even the students who steadfastly follow every self-quarantine best practice will find themselves in living arrangements with those who don’t. Bottom line: college students are gonna be college students. And they seem to get that more than the administrators.
According to a survey conducted by three UT student leadership organizations and released on Thursday afternoon, such concerns are shared by the student population. Sixty percent of the students surveyed identified football games as an environment they’re worried will spread the disease; more than half named on-campus housing, and nearly 45 percent mentioned off-campus events and parties. When asked to rank, on a scale of zero to ten, how comfortable they were with the university’s plan to reopen campus, the average response from more than 1,400 students was a dismal 2.73. “I personally am worried that my peers will not prioritize consideration of others,” Winston Hung, the university’s student body vice president, told Texas Monthly.
According to the New York Times, no school has seen more coronavirus cases over the past five months than UT-Austin—despite the suspension of in-person classes during that time. More than 440 students, faculty, and staff had tested positive through the end of July. (The university argued that there were “omissions” in reporting from other schools that led it to take the top spot, but didn’t dispute the figure reported by the Times.) Other Texas universities, including a number of schools in the UT system, also appear in the Times report.
In March, a group of UT students who quickly grew to internet infamy as the #Cabo211 made the sort of decision that shows just how risky putting public safety in the hands of tens of thousands of college students is: They took a planned spring break trip to Mexico, even as the rest of the country had begun strictly quarantining, and nearly a third of them tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return. The group came under fire, but treating young people who want to hang out together like selfish monsters ignores the impossible situation that they’ve been put in, too: the brains of college-aged humans are wired to seek out social interaction and new experience, and they’ve been denied those things for months.
College students want to live a college lifestyle—and they’ve already had a lot of the experiences they’ve been promised taken away from them. If even a handful of them decide they’d rather play beer pong than shoulder the responsibility of preventing the further spread of a disease that’s already cost so much, the consequences could be serious for those of us who won’t find themselves anywhere near a house party this fall.