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College students return to campus in a few weeks. We wanted to know their thoughts about quarantine, symptom tracking, contact tracing, and mask wearing on campus, so my grad student @laurie_groshon and I did focus groups to find out.

Here’s what students told us

First, we asked them about the required 14 day quarantine before the semester starts. Every student we asked said that this is not realistic and will likely fail. 😳

They pointed out that students are eager to see each other and will find a way to do so when they arrive on campus. They said that students who live 1-2 hours away will try to find a way to go home. They said off campus students will likely find their way on campus. 😬

They were concerned about boredom. One suggested that instead of bringing students back 2 weeks early, the first 2 weeks of the semester should be quarantine (online classes only) because then at least students would have something to do. (Not a bad idea.)

Students expressed concerns about how a pre-semester quarantine would be enforced. They also said they wanted to hear that the university understands how hard this is on them.

They want… empathy. 💜

Not punishment.🤬

University messaging really needs to reflect this. 5/x
We asked: what would make this quarantine tolerable?

They were not enthusiastic generally about online games/activities; instead they said they want outdoor socially-distanced activities such as movies, concerts, exercise classes.

Their belief that quarantine won’t be effective seemed to really affect their motivation to want to stick to it. This will be a real problem. If people believe it is doomed from the start, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Students also said they want specific guidelines about what it means to quarantine. For example, a “dos” and “don’ts” list. A theme throughout the focus groups was that students want to be educated about why all these steps are important.

Bottom line about pre-semester quarantine---universities need to:

✅show empathy
✅be flexible about activities allowed (harm reduction), ✅keep students busy
✅find ways for students to socialize (don't rely on online interactions)
✅be specific and realistic.

Next we asked about symptom tracking via mobile app… Students were concerned about the consequences of reporting symptoms and wanted to be clear on what the consequences will be. They fear automatic quarantine if they report ANY symptom and this is a big deterrent.

Students said unless their symptoms were severe and unusual they might not report them. Their sense was that most students don’t think they will get #COVID19 and then may brush off symptom tracking.

We asked: How to maximize participation in symptom tracking? Generally they were very enthusiastic about rewards and against punishment. For ex, receiving prizes, food, university swag, or extra credit for symptom tracking “streaks.”

They also suggested that students not doing symptom tracking be contacted by the student health center who could then discuss the importance of symptom checks and help problem solve any barriers.

They also wanted guidance on whether to report symptoms they experience regularly (e.g., frequent headaches). They were uncertain re how to assess which symptoms should be reported. They want guidance to be personalized to their pre-existing conditions.

Symptom tracking apps should include educational content to help students navigate these issues. An app for a gen pop may not meet student needs or be designed with what students have at stake when they report symptoms (e.g., missing social events, exams) in mind.

Onto contact tracing… Students said an obstacle to sharing contacts is SHAME. They seemed scared people could figure out they got infected and shame them especially if they got infected while doing something risky.

Infection really needs to be de-stigmatized on campus.

The other big fear related to getting infected was getting in trouble---many are very fearful testing positive will get you kicked off campus.

Students were also concerned about sharing contacts from bars if they were at a bar and underage. Students generally are worried that in sharing contacts it might be revealed they were somewhere they shouldn’t have been and this could get them into trouble.

Now let’s discuss masks. Students seemed optimistic that mask wearing wouldn’t be a major problem indoors for classes and university-related activities. 👍They requested that masks be made widely available so that if people show up without one, they could get one easily.

However, students were pessimistic about mask wearing during social events. They said it will depend on the social norms of the group. Many said students should hold each other accountable but weren't sure how to do this.

This is an opportunity to provide guidance!

Students expressed concerns that students coming from states that have been lax about masks and social distancing might not have good habits and their behavior may set the tone for others.

Next, we asked students about messaging that would motivate them to be safe. They said a message that emphasizes the goal of returning to normal by spring. They understand fall will be weird but they hope spring is back to normal. THIS is the goal that will rally them.

Finally, we asked what the threshold should be for closing campus down. Almost all students said it should be based on several weeks of increasing cases on campus and should not wait until someone dies. One student said under no circumstances should the campus close. 😬

We noticed that some students had misinformed beliefs/knowledge gaps about #COVID19 and safety measures.

Good idea: Several students suggested a required training module at the beginning of the semester to make sure all students are well-informed.

To close, we recommend that universities do multi-level campaigns that:

✅Debunk myths
✅Promote safety measures
✅Convey empathy
✅Rally students around the goal to return to normal
✅Provide frequent updates on how the campus is doing (in measurable terms)

⚠️ To clarify! This work was part of the Behavioral and Social Sciences #COVID19 Working Group convened by @UConn leadership, and led by @UConn_InCHIP. We conducted surveys of 1000’s of students, did an Ideas Lab with students, faculty & staff, and interviewed countless students.
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