An architecture expert and a bioethicist explore the problem of residence halls during the pandemic (opinion)

We are an unlikely team. Carla Yanni is the author of a recent book on the history of residence hall architecture, and Holly Taylor is a bioethicist at the National Institutes for Health with expertise in public health ethics and infectious disease. We have a simple message: if you are a college administrator considering opening residence halls to students in fall 2020, think twice.

We agree that the traditional on-campus residential experience has many advantages: community building, making new and diverse friends, networking for future success. We are both products of those privileged experiences; living on campus enhanced our lives and amplified our career opportunities. Residential living can, in particular, advance the social status of students from less advantaged circumstances. We see this today with college students returning home to crowded living arrangements forced to manage college coursework on cellphones and/or with limited access to high-speed Wi-Fi.

We are not denying any of the personal and social benefits of communal living as a part of college, but the value of these benefits must be weighed against the risk of COVID-19 infection among those living in close quarters and the human cost of the morbidity and mortality that will result. While hospitalization and death rates among people age 18 to 21 are likely less than those for older adults, the rate is not zero. If we assume these young adults are just as likely to be infected but perhaps less likely to develop severe symptoms that lead them to seek medical attention, they are very efficient vectors for the virus. Inside and outside dormitories, students engage in activities that could expose them to COVID-19: eating together, hunching over a phone to watch a YouTube video, arguing, kissing, copulating, even thumb wrestling. The decision to continue to bring students to campus has public health costs as well as the considerable social and financial consequences.

Starting in the second half of the 19th century, architects designed residence halls specifically to encourage interaction. Architects manipulated everything from the entrance sequence to the number of residents on a hall to the shape of the lounge — all in an effort to increase face-to-face contact. From the poshest furnishings (a piano in the parlor, club chairs by the fire) to the most mundane amenities (a foosball table in the basement, the bench by the front door) residence halls put students together intentionally.

Those same designs and interior décor place the people living in dormitories at higher risk of infection in the age of COVID-19. In order to bring students back to dormitories, the physical influence of those living spaces will need to be subverted. Perhaps existing building stock can be modified for the pandemic. For example, traditional dormitories — those with double-loaded corridors — could be rearranged so that one student occupies each bedroom, eliminating doubles. But that does not solve the problem of the shared bathrooms and lounges. So shut off the lounge and limit the bathroom to one person at a time.

What about doorknobs and water fountains? What about the elevator? Many colleges have apartments, so perhaps they could have students use those and leave the traditional dorms empty. But an arrangement that includes a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom is not much different from the plan of a nursing home. (And we know how that turned out.) If students come to campus only to hole themselves up in single bedrooms, how will new friendships develop?

The human cost of bringing students on campus will quickly spread to those responsible for the maintenance of the dormitories in which they live. Will the custodians, plumbers, electricians and residence life staff have access to the appropriate personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies? Any decision about living on campus has to consider the risks of all the people involved in making their housing safe, clean and comfortable.

Related, once the students return to campuses, the actions of a few will probably increase the risk of infection to the larger college community. Since the earliest days of American colleges, students hatched a distinctive culture, an identity as students, in opposition to administrators and faculty members. That is a fact of student life. (The hackneyed image of the student as a prank-pulling, goldfish-chugging, put-the-cow-on-the roof troublemaker goes back two centuries.) Of course, there are always serious students, historically ridiculed as grinds or nerds, who follow instructions like the guidelines about hand washing and wearing masks that will no doubt accompany life on campus next year. But in a pandemic, the rule-breakers rule.

Add to this environment, perfect for viral transmission, the fact that 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Drinking increases risky behavior, and we have no reason to think that student knowledge of COVID-19 will reduce their alcohol intake in response to the pandemic. In fact, alcohol use could even increase as such students manage COVID-related anxiety and depression. Their actions will endanger all of the students who are moderating their behavior — the ones who are acting cautiously because their lives depend upon it.

College administrators need to balance the immediate and long-term benefits of residential life with a predictable level of COVID-19 illness and death. Once there is an effective COVID vaccine, we can dispense with this moral calculus. Before we have a vaccine, we may have universal testing and/or effective treatments available. Either of these developments may shift the balance in favor of students returning to campus.

But relying on structural, policy and behavioral interventions alone will not eliminate the personal risk to students and the collateral risk to the larger college community. In other words, administrators must decide whether the economic costs of delaying the return to campus outweigh the predictable cost of student death and disability.

Inside Higher Ed