Illustration of how COVID-19 can spread and why it is essential to communicate boundaries to your college roommates
Setting boundaries with roommates and friends is a good way to discover and respect everybody's health needs (Illustration by Malini Basu, Macalester College)

Setting COVID-19 Boundaries With Others When You’re Back at College

As you head back to campus, it is essential to set boundaries with your friends and learn about their health needs.

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Illustration of how COVID-19 can spread and why it is essential to communicate boundaries to your college roommates

As you head back to campus, it is essential to set boundaries with your friends and learn about their health needs.

If you are returning to campus this fall, you are probably really excited to see your friends. It has been likely months since you last saw them in person. However, before you get together, there are conversations about COVID-19 boundaries you should have with them first.

1. Establish A Common Understanding of the Pandemic

Misinformation has run rampant throughout the pandemic. However, there are a few facts that people should know about to make informed decisions about COVID-19 safety. You can spread COVID-19 even if you don’t have symptoms. Masks, social distancing and hand hygiene have been shown to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It is safer to socialize outside than inside, because air circulation helps dissipate the virus particles, but no setting is risk-free. COVID-19 is a serious, sometimes fatal illness for people of all ages.

A common understanding of this information is essential so that you and your friends can develop safety plans for yourselves that are in line with public health recommendations.

2. Find Out What Your Friend’s Experiences With The Pandemic

In addition to a shared understanding of the public health realities of the pandemic, you need to know about the different experiences your friends have had with it, as well as the unique risks they face. Ask open-ended questions and be ready to listen — what you learn might surprise you.

One in three young people are medically vulnerable to COVID-19, and this percentage only rises with age. Odds are your friends or one of their family members could be at risk. These risk factors shape comfort with risk-taking for many people, including Abby Neff.

Neff, a journalism major at Ohio University, has multiple immunocompromised family members. Her decisions about what safety precautions she makes with friends are based on her wish to see her at-risk family members in person.

“I care about my at-risk aunts and uncles and want to be able to eventually see them on a porch, even if we are both wearing masks. If I am reckless, I can’t do that,” said Neff.

Knowing what risks your friends and their loved ones face and what losses they may have already suffered will help you have a kind and effective discussion about safety planning.

3. Decide on Shared Rules

It is important to be on the same page about the precautions you can take with the people you plan to see in person this fall, especially if you are sharing a living space.

While many of the most publicized outbreaks have come from non-physically distanced parties, many people catch COVID-19 in scenarios outside of their control, such as while working an in-person essential job or taking crowded public transportation.

However, risk can always be minimized. For example, if you have a campus job, consider changing clothes and showering immediately when you come back to your dorm room. If you do not have a car and must take the bus, you could use hand sanitizer after touching any surfaces within the vehicle.

In addition to basic needs like work, transportation and classes, you and your friends have social needs. Be open about your social plans and find low-risk ways to socialize. Possible strategies include hanging out outside, having gatherings without food and with masks on and keeping the number of people low. These plans, although annoying, can help you spend time with friends in person more safely.

4. Make Worst Case Scenario Plans

While you can minimize the risks you face by staying informed and cautious, there is no zero risk way to return to campus. Have an evacuation plan if conditions on campus feel unsafe and one of your housemates falls ill. Pack as light as possible when moving to school, and have a fully packed go bag in case you need to quarantine yourself and your campus provides you a place in which to isolate.

Making plans for if you fall seriously ill can be a scary process, but as unpleasant as it is to think about, it could be key to having the support you need to recover and return to normal life. Make plans about who would medically advocate for you in case you fell ill, and review your university’s health leave of absence policies to see what challenges you may face if you have to take a semester off to recover.

5. Identify Resources

Consider finding resources that help you minimize the risks of COVID-19 while maintaining your well-being. At my university, there is an access fund that can help with emergency travel as well as other unanticipated expenses not covered by financial aid. Your school may have similar resources, which could help facilitate your worst case scenario safety plans. Other resources may exist at your school, including student-run mutual aid funds.

In addition to identifying financial resources that can help you maximize your physical safety, come up with self-care strategies that will help you cope with the uncertainty of attending college during a pandemic. Find people you can talk to about hard emotions, whether that’s a close friend, therapist, family member, faith leader or mentor. Identify reliable sources of news so you can stay informed, because changing circumstances may influence your safety plans.

While times are certainly chaotic, and the government response to COVID-19 has often been less than competent, we have local resources and we have each other. Getting on the same page with your friends will make the in-person campus experience as safe as possible.

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