AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Yes, college students are partying. And in many cases, that is spreading the coronavirus on campus. Some universities have suspended students for violating social distancing rules that are intended to keep them safe. Others have been forced into lockdown. But in many ways, this isn't surprising. After months away, these young people are back at school, reuniting with their friends, so experts say schools should be trying a less punitive approach. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the latest from our fall college road trip.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It's about 10:30 p.m. on a weekend. We're on Oakland Ave., a popular spot for upperclassmen near the University of Michigan campus.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.
There's no big visible parties, but there are lots of students hanging out.
ALYSSA HUTH: This street is, like, kind of, like, the hotspot of where you kind of want to be. Most of our friends are on this street.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Put some more lighter fuel on it.
HUTH: No. that's...
NADWORNY: Alyssa Huth and six of her friends are on the front lawn of their group house drinking red wine around a fire pit.
HUTH: We just picked it up at Home Depot today.
HUTH: That's pretty much all there is to it. We just wanted an outdoor activity that we could do on our lawn, yeah.
NADWORNY: Everyone's outside tonight. The house next door has chairs and lights on the roof. Another neighbor has a beer pong game going in the driveway.
CAROLINE TOUZEAU: Well, they have a grill right over there, so they'll come out here and grill sometimes.
NADWORNY: Around the corner, there's a group gathered around a TV rigged up outside watching basketball. Everyone's trying to be safe because of COVID, says Caroline Touzeau, a senior who's cozied up by the fire. But even still...
TOUZEAU: Like, the cops will come and patrol or, like, send people inside, basically, when you try and have people outside. But then, like, you get shut down, so everyone just, like, flees inside, and that defeats the whole purpose.
NADWORNY: Residents near the university are worried about students spreading COVID. Julia Marcus is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University. She says perhaps we're not policing the right things.
JULIA MARCUS: We tend to focus on things that are fun as being particularly risky, as if fun itself transmits the virus. And it doesn't.
NADWORNY: Universities need to make clear to students, she says, what they're trying to avoid - those big indoor gatherings without masks in someone's basement.
MARCUS: I've seen a lot of don't do this, don't do this, don't do this, but very little, you know, like, here's what you can do to socialize - gather outdoors. Play cornhole outside. Play beer pong outside.
NADWORNY: And she says previous public health research, it shows that blaming and shaming doesn't help. In fact, it can actually make things harder. Students are less likely to discuss where they've been to contract tracers. And the reality is that young people, they're social beings. Hanging out, socializing - it's built into the way their brains are wired.
ANNA SONG: And you can't deny that that pull for social interaction is incredibly strong for this group. It's, you know, formative for them.
NADWORNY: Anna Song is an assistant professor of health psychology at the University of California, Merced. She studies decision-making by young adults.
SONG: So asking them to deny that is a Herculean challenge.
NADWORNY: She sees punishing social behavior as a mistake.
SONG: My first thought was, I bet what kids are - you know, what some kids will think is, well, then I just can't get caught. And so it becomes this game.
NADWORNY: The secret nature of all of this - making sure the music is low, that not too many people know about the party - it's actually kind of exhausting.
KEVIN MCSHANE: This is kind of this weird game where you're just kind of trying to keep things as down low as possible while still having, like, a fun, normal time. And it's just this constant, like, back-and-forth battle.
NADWORNY: Kevin McShane is a senior at Michigan. He lives in a house with 23 other guys, many from his fraternity.
MCSHANE: I'm actually just about the first person up right now. It's - what? - 11:30 (laughter).
NADWORNY: The house has four floors. These spaces are built to be social.
MCSHANE: It's fun to just, like, go up and down and see what's up (laughter) throughout the house.
NADWORNY: In the house they live normally, McShane says, it would be weird to wear masks at home watching TV. But he says that means there is a kind of resignation about the virus.
MCSHANE: I'm under the impression that if one of us gets it in this house, I think we're all going to get it pretty quick.
NADWORNY: In Ann Arbor, you can get in trouble if you have an outdoor gathering of more than 25 people. So if too many people come over, they've got a problem.
MCSHANE: It's kind of just, like, everyone versus Greek life right now.
NADWORNY: They've already gotten two warnings for partying with too many people. Another offense, and they'll have to pay a fine. And McShane says they haven't even been throwing their typical ragers.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Ann Arbor, Mich.
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