In The New York Times’ opinion column “Expecting Students to Play it Safe if Colleges Reopen is a Fantasy,” Laurence Steinberg outlines the many dangers that are unique to a college environment, including impulsivity and risk-taking, and explains how college students are less likely to adhere to guidelines put in place by authority figures, like wearing masks at all times.
While I commend NC State for taking extra precautions to help prevent students from spreading the virus, the fact that such intense measures have been put in place — as of right now, students are required to wear masks at all times in public spaces, many classes have been moved online and students are required to maintain a six-foot distance from each other in classrooms and buildings, which has affected class sizes and schedules.
As Steinberg said, college students, due to their age group and as a consequence of living away from home for the first time, are naturally prone to engage in behavior that might be considered wild or even illegal, such as, drinking, partying and doing illegal drugs.
I’m not suggesting that all students will engage in risky behaviors when given the opportunity, but those who do will risk putting themselves and others in danger. Considering the dangerous and unpredictable nature of COVID-19, the idea of voluntarily going to an environment where large numbers of students live together with limited supervision is incredibly risky. It seems like a large sacrifice to make for the ability to engage in the limited experiences that will be left after social distancing measures are put in place.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “college is an investment.” While I don’t disagree with that, I think that college is so much more, from sitting on the grass outside of Talley and talking to friends or working through tough homework problems in D.H. Hill. It’s a big part of the college experience, and one of the reasons that public universities still maintain their importance, despite a four-year degree losing its economic value, is those little social interactions. They may seem insignificant or ordinary in the moment, but they are actually an integral part of personal, social and academic growth.
While I’m sure that it will still be possible to socialize to a certain extent after the safety precautions are implemented on campus, there will also be a lot of things that are different, like chatting with the person right next to you before class, having impromptu barbeques outside of residence halls — one of my favorite memories from freshman year — or even just being able to walk around freely without being afraid of getting sick or getting other people sick.
In fact, it seems like the on-campus experience is going to be a lot more similar to online education than it is different: with less peer-to-peer interaction, limited social gatherings and a whole lot of time spent working individually on a computer.
As colleges across the country are changing the way they operate, the idea of taking a gap year is gaining momentum. According to Forbes, the percentage of students taking a gap year has significantly increased. As mentioned in the article, the idea of taking a gap year comes with a lot of misconceptions; for example, some associate taking a gap year with traveling around Europe or volunteering overseas. However, this stereotypical image is far from the only way to spend a gap year. For many students, a gap year is a chance to work and save money for future education or help their families, all while building skills that may not be so easily obtained in a classroom.
While I know that for many students taking a gap semester or year would have academic consequences, or that students who have already signed a lease for the upcoming year would be problematic, taking a gap year just doesn’t make sense. However, before we continue to invest in a college experience that is drastically different from the one we signed up for, we should take a step back and question whether or not going back to a campus full of tape on the ground and social distancing is really worth it.