Most of the attention and controversy over school attendance in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic these past couple of months has focused on K-12 classrooms. Less attention has been paid to college policies.

That’s too bad, because it’s now becoming clear those same policies are likely to spread COVID-19 back into many of those students’ home communities.

The CDC Steps Up to the Plate — and Strikes Out

In late May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued another of its less-than-optimal position papers related to COVID-19: “Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education,” which laid out the risks involved in college students returning to fall classrooms in the midst of a pandemic, along with “considerations” to lessen that risk. By early fall 2020, they are familiar:

  • frequent hand-washing
  • use of masks “as feasible”
  • ”signs and messages” describing recommended protective measures

A number of CDC recommendations for “healthy operations” follow. Dealing with them all is beyond the scope of this article and, I suspect, readers’ patience, but I’ll focus on two of particular relevance to the problem of COVID-19 transmission:

  • modified physical layouts to maintain a minimum of 6 feet between persons (the CDC again adds the not particularly helpful caution “when feasible.”
  • promotion of “social distancing” at group events, including “sporting events and…sports activities.”

When you’re 19, how are you likely to interpret “when feasible?” With these earnest suggestions, what could possibly go wrong?

Decision-Making and the Adolescent Brain

What can — and already is — going wrong is the CDC’s naive belief that putting out a position paper that relies on college students to maintain safe practices in the midst of a health crisis solves the problem.

Abundant 21st century research (which nearly every college teacher and this former college teacher would confirm) shows that adolescent brains work differently from adults “when they make decisions or solve problems.”

This isn’t a correctable issue because it’s a function of the frontal cortex. Brain development in this area completes by age 25, not before. This is the area where mature decision-making takes place.

What the research shows is that there are a number of ways this development can be slowed down (by drugs, sex, diet and lack of sleep), but that there’s no way of bringing adolescents to maturity any faster. Young adults are biologically determined to act impulsively. Any directive that counts on adolescents behaving otherwise is either cynical or uninformed.

This Is Your Brain (No Drugs Needed)

Keeping the adolescent brain in mind, what has happened as colleges have reopened for the fall was entirely predictable and should have been accounted for. Unfortunately, it wasn’t and so-called “adult” decisions have only made a bad situation worse.

College students all across the country, from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Florida, Georgia and UC Berkeley have celebrated the return to school by partying. At most parties, no social distancing was observed (how can you maintain social distance and hug at the same time — it’s unreasonable!) and masks were generally scarce and more often completely absent.

As noted, all the research strongly suggests that even the best handling of this problem would have been inadequate. But the handling by the CDC and by the majority of college officials has made the situation demonstrably worse.

If you’re 19 years old and told to socially distance, how seriously should you take that when your beloved football team is already getting ready for a full-contact fall season? When local police don’t enforce public health orders on masks and social distancing? When, as Greta Anderson put in in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, students are “Partying Like it’s 2019” with uneven or nonexistent enforcement of the rulings against it.

Now Let’s Spread This Around a Bit!

The worst decision however, and the one that prompted my writing this article, is what seems to me to be the completely nutty one many colleges have made when students contract COVID, namely, to send them back home again where they can spread the disease to one more community. At East Carolina University, for example, where, as of the end of August, there were already 125 COVID cases among students and staff, and where the school made the typically belated decision to send infected students back home again and, as of Sept. 30, to conduct all classes online.

Similar decisions after COVID-19 has begun to spread have been made widely among colleges across the country as administrators find themselves unable to keep college students from, well, behaving like adolescents. The wisdom and necessity of the decision to have begun the fall semester with remote learning seems obvious. But it would have been a decision that carried its own financial and intellectual downsides, although none in my opinion as acute as the decision to return infected students back to their home communities.