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Health & Safety

Keeping Off-Campus College Students Healthy This Fall

Marybeth Bock, MPH

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For colleges and universities that will be welcoming students back to campus this fall, safety plans and protocols are evolving daily. Administrators are working closely with public health experts on how to best house, feed and teach their students with the least amount of risk to their health and safety.

Most of the focus has been directed at students spending time in campus buildings and living in university-owned housing, such as dorms and suite-style buildings. But what about the off-campus students who live near their schools in rental apartments and houses? Most if not all of them will probably be unable to access “isolation dorms” should they become ill. They may also be more tempted to defy school guidance when it comes to group gatherings and self-quarantine guidelines.

So, how do we best help prepare our off-campus students for this first semester back at school? Here are some items to gather and discussions to have before your student heads back to their off-campus housing.

Must-Have Items for Fall

1. Medical Power of Attorney or Authorization for Disclosure of Health Information forms

This needs to be filled out by your student with explicit designation for you as their parent to be able to discuss health concerns with any medical staff should they become ill. A Power of Attorney form can be downloaded from the Attorney General’s site for the state where your student goes to school, and many schools now have Medical Disclosure forms on their own websites.

In some states, a HIPAA release form is rolled into the Medical Power of Attorney form. These forms usually don't need to be notarized.

Keep hard copies of forms at your house and save digital copies on both your phone and your student’s phone, should either of you need to utilize it.

Link to a free Medical Records Release Authorization form (aka HIPAA release form) that's customizable by state here >
2. Basic student health necessities

The list includes:

  • A good supply of masks, both reusable/washable and disposable
  • Liquid hand soap
  • Hand sanitizer 
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Tylenol
  • A thermometer

Your student should really have lots of masks, sanitizer and wipes and get in the habit of keeping a stash at home, in the car (if they have one) and in their backpack.

If you want to be extra careful or have a student in a higher-risk health category, a pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygen levels can be purchased at drug stores and on Amazon. Have your student practice using the thermometer and pulse oximeter before they leave home.

It's not necessary to purchase any super expensive products that claim to kill germs in rooms and on common objects like phones. Simple habits like frequent hand washing, wiping down surfaces with disinfectant wipes, and avoiding crowds are best practices for staying healthy. 

3. A small stock of non-perishable foods and drinks

Have them stock up on things they can easily access and prepare if they need to isolate due to COVID-19 or a common cold or flu. Helpful items are soups, canned vegetables and fruits, frozen meals, protein bars and electrolyte-replenishing beverages.

4. Disposable plates, cups, etc.

Your student and their roommates should consider purchasing disposable plates, cups, cutlery and napkins, along with a box of disposable gloves to help prohibit the transmission of virus should they need to assist each other with meal preparation and clean-up.

5. Household cleaning supplies

They'll need to make extra efforts to keep common areas and high-touch surfaces as clean as possible. The kitchen and every shared bathroom should always have sanitizing products and disposable paper towels. Keeping windows open and being outside as much as possible is recommended.

Topics to Discuss

1. The importance of being aware of school communications

If your student isn't already in the habit of checking email daily or accessing their school’s website frequently, stress the value of being informed during this time of constant change, particularly when there is news about testing and tracing procedures on campus.

Make sure that they sign up for health and safety alerts and follow their college’s social media platforms. Remind them that the science surrounding COVID-19 will be continually evolving during this entire academic year.

2. Compliance with school and community regulations

Many schools will be requiring all students to sign behavioral contracts regarding pandemic health and safety guidelines and consequences surrounding student activities. Administrators at some universities have already announced that students could face suspensions if they're found in violation of health safety rules, like attending a large off-campus party.

In addition, the city and county where your off-campus student lives will have rules or recommendations regarding the size of gatherings, social distancing, masks, etc. Your student can sign up on the city and county websites to receive email updates.

Talk with your student about the seriousness of risky behaviors and how it could affect their future educational and career options, in addition to their short-term health.

3. The seriousness of this illness

The invincibility of youth is a hallmark thought pattern with most college students, and the scientific evidence thus far does support the fact that the vast majority of young adults who get sick with COVID-19 will experience very mild symptoms.

But experts don't yet know what the long-term health consequences of this virus may be for patients of any age. Talk to your student about this, especially if they voice an “I just want to get it and get it over with” attitude.

4. Taking care of others

A “Golden Rule” mentality is one that all students should embrace this year. Helping each other out will be vital for off-campus students should a roommate or housemate get sick. Small gestures like running errands and cooking meals for one another can be accomplished safely and easily with just a little planning. Help your student adopt a compassionate mindset and think about what they find helpful when they are sick, in order to better serve their friends.

5. Flexibility

This is the approach we all need to embrace this year as both parents and students. Come up with Plan B scenarios should your student need to vacate their room quickly due to a sick roommate. Every stakeholder group connected to a college that is re-opening is embarking upon a brand new and complicated process. We all must be ready for abrupt shifts and adjustments, should events unfold in ways that we didn't predict.

Let's all work together to do our best at keeping all students, faculty and staff members safe and healthy, no matter where they are living or how they are accessing their learning, teaching and employment.

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Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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