Is it safe to go to college in fall?

Some colleges and universities are offering in-person classes this fall. Is it safe for you or your teenager to head back to campus? The local situation is a big factor. More people with COVID in the local community increase the chances that college students, faculty, or staff will bring the infection to campus. This means that controlling COVID infections overall is the best way to make a return to college safe.

How common and serious is COVID for collegians?

Two other factors to consider are the typical ages and activities of students on college campuses. Though young people are less likely to get very sick with COVID, they still can. And of course they can spread the virus to others, even if they have mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. 

In fact, about 22% of confirmed cases in the US are in people aged 18-29. And about 4% of COVID cases in 20-29 year olds result in hospitalization. The hospitalization rate is even higher for young people with pre-existing medical conditions. And 20-29 year olds account for 0.5% of COVID-19 deaths. So college-age students are definitely at risk of spreading and getting very sick with COVID.

Why is living on-campus higher risk?

A big part of campus life is living and having fun with lots of other young people. Campus parties, like any crowded indoor event, put people at high risk for getting and spreading COVID. Even if you don’t attend a party, indoor communal living--sleeping in a dorm, eating in a cafeteria, sharing bathrooms, going to lectures with lots of other people--is relatively high risk. And even if you take steps to stay safe, one infected person can quickly transmit COVID to many other people in these circumstances.

So if you have a medical condition, or will continue living with someone at high risk of getting very sick with COVID, consider remote learning instead. But if you’re set on going back, here are some additional tips to lower your risk. 

What to look for in a campus’s reopening plan?

  • COVID testing before returning to campus.
  • Quarantine requirements upon arriving on campus.
  • Dedicated housing for students who are sick with COVID or who were exposed.
  • Capacity for rapid testing.
  • Public dashboard or means of sharing the number of COVID cases on campus.
  • A specific threshold (e.g. number of cases) when the campus will pause in-person classes if there is a spike in COVID cases. 

Also, it’s good if colleges have a plan for how they will shut down if an outbreak occurs, to avoid sending all the exposed students, faculty, and staff back to their home communities, where they might continue to spread COVID. 

Last update: August 21, 2020, 5:24 pm ET

Science review: ERS