Allow me to state the extremely obvious: Campus life is gonna be different this year since we’re, ya know, in the middle of a pandemic and all.
And since you’re here, I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re moving into a dorm in the next few weeks—or you’re already there. Le dorms, as you probably know, tend to be germ factories even under normal circumstances. So, um, you’re in for a journey this semester.
Before we get into all the the expert-approved advice on staying COVID-free, I have a little homework for you: Familiarize yourself with the health and social distancing guidelines provided by your school as well as the city and state you’ll be living in. Those are the baseline protocols you need to follow in order to stay healthy in your particular sitch.
Most schools have a coronavirus information-specific page on their websites, which you can find by Googling your university’s name + coronavirus. For guidance from the state you’ll be living in, head to its Department of Health site.
Ok, now that you know where to start, let’s get into the extra dorm-specific tips you should be doing to stay healthy this fall.
1. Don’t touch your face in communal spaces
The whole “don’t touch your face” rule has been a thing since March because your hands could transfer the virus to your mouth, nose, or eyes that way.
But it’s an especially important guideline to follow when you’re in shared spaces like hall bathrooms or kitchens, says Shira Doron, MD, hospital epidemiologist and infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center. That’s because you’ll likely be touching surfaces that other people have touched, and you can’t ensure that they’ve been disinfected, she explains.
2. Sanitize your hands on the reg
Unless you have a sink directly in your dorm room, hand sanitizer is about to become your new best friend. But you don’t have to go crazy with it. Reapplying every 10 mins when you’re just sitting in your room watching Netflix? Yeah, not necessary.
Instead, use it during key moments, like when you’re about to eat, or after you’ve been in a public area, says Tim Lahey, MD, director of medical ethics and infectious disease physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center. The same goes for any time you’re about to touch your face, adds Dr. Doron.
3. Keep your windows open as much as possible
As you’ve probably heard, coronavirus is commonly spread through the air. And small, stuffy spaces (aka most dorm rooms) can actually make it easier for the virus to travel, says Dr. Doron.
“One of the easiest ways to kind of interrupt that is by having an infusion of clean air into the room to dilute the virus,” she explains. So basically, keep your windows open whenever possible.
Oh, and just FYI, you don’t have to drop major $$ on an air purifier. Experts aren’t sure whether they can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, so you’re better off sticking with the proven (and cheaper) method of opening a window, explains Dr. Lahey.
4. Bring your own kitchen supplies or wash shared ones carefully
If you’re sharing a kitchen with people in your hall that aren’t your roommates, it’s a good idea to pack your own cups, dishes, silverware, and cooking utensils when you move in and just bring them to the kitchen when you want to use them—kinda like you’d do with your shower caddy, says Dr. Doron. That way, you’ll avoid using anything that hasn’t been properly cleaned.
Sound like too much of a hassle? Then just be sure to clean any shared items really well before you use them, says Dr. Lahey. The CDC guidelines for shared housing recommends handling unwashed items with gloves and washing them with dish soap and hot water or putting them in a dishwasher.
5. Get your dining hall food to-go
If 90 percent of your meals come from the dining hall your dorm, you don’t really have to worry about your silverware being clean there. Most schools are planning to offer disposable utensils or have sanitizing systems in place.
But you do have to worry about where you’re going to eat. Your safest bet is to take your food to-go (an option almost every school is offering) and eat it outside or in your room, says Dr. Doron. That way, you’re less likely to find yourself within six feet of someone without a mask on.
FWIW, you can eat in the dining hall if your school allows it, but you’ll want to sit at least six feet away from anyone else who’s eating, says Dr. Lahey. Some schools are limiting seating to one chair per table to make that clear.
6. Decide who’s going to be in your bubble
It’s kind of unrealistic to maintain perfect social distancing with every. single. person. on. campus. Especially if you’re living with a roommate or two. So instead, Dr. Lahey recommends creating a ‘bubble’ of a few people you’re comfortable being exposed to. “You should just accept that you’re exposed to each other and if one of you gets sick the other ones have a reasonable risk of getting it and that’s how it is, that’s how life has to be,” he says.
Sooo how do you create a bubble? It should be a small group of people—your roommate(s), your bf or gf, and maybe a best friend or two, says Dr. Lahey. These are the people you don’t necessarily have to wear your mask around, just like the people you were quarantining with before you came to college. But in order to have a successful bubble, you need to set some ground rules.
Come up with expectations that every member of the bubble is comfortable with, advises Lahey. Maybe that means you all agree you’re only going to leave campus to get groceries, or that you won’t hang out with anyone outside of your bubble without wearing a mask and maintaining six feet of distance. If you can’t agree on some basic rules, rethink whether these are the right people for your bubble, says Dr. Lahey.
Also,you CANNOT exist in multiple bubbles or the bubble system doesn’t work. So creating a bubble with your roommates, then one with your friends in your major, and one with your club soccer teammates? That’s not gonna end well, says Dr. Lahey.
In a bubble, you’re effectively exposed to everyone the people in your crew are exposed to. Think about it, if you bring your best friend into your bubble, you’re exposed to her roommate too because she lives with her—even if she’s not technically part of your group. To keep that number of people from snowballing, stick with one responsible pod and make sure you don’t see people outside that bubble without social distancing.
7. Mask up when you’re around people outside the bubble
Every school’s policy on when you need to wear your mask in the dorms is probably going to be a little different, agree Dr. Doron and Dr. Lahey. So your best bet is to follow your college’s rules since they’re situation-specific.
But, when in doubt, wear your mask if you’re going to be within six feet of anyone who’s not in your bubble, says Dr. Lahey. If that means rocking your mask in the hall bathroom or study room, so be it.
8. Know your school’s gathering size limit *and* stick to it
Basically, this means don’t go to parties. Sorry! It’s a bummer, but sticking to gathering size guidelines (aka keeping hangouts small and socially distanced) is super important, says Dr. Doron. A lot of the recent rises in case numbers in the U.S. are actually due to people violating gathering size limits, she explains.
This is another guideline that’s going to vary by state and by school, so make sure you know your gathering size limit—and stick to it. It’s simple statistics, if you hang out with fewer people, you’re less likely to catch COVID-19 or unknowingly spread it, Dr. Doron says.
And whenever possible, try to hang out outside or in a neutral space, not one of your friend’s rooms, adds Dr. Lahey.
9. Bring stuff that’ll help keep you sane
Part of staying healthy is taking care of your mental health, too. Dr. Lahey recommends asking yourself, “What am I going to do to make sure that I take care of myself?” Then, pack whatever you need to make that possible, whether it’s a soothing face mask or a meditation mat.
Another part of maintaining your sanity? Thinking of fun activities you can do with friends while maintaining social distancing. Bring tennis rackets, walking shoes, a speaker—whatever you need to make social distanced hangs actually fun.
10. Speak up if you don’t feel safe
Maybe you feel like there are too many people using the hall bathroom at one time. Or the kitchen is always too crowded. Don’t be afraid to speak up and problem-solve if you don’t like the way things are going in your dorm, says Dr. Lahey.
Talk to your RA or ask your hallmates to help you come up with a plan that makes everyone feel more comfortable, like having a system for when certain rooms can use the kitchen. If you’re feeling unsafe, chances are you’re not the only one.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to speak up if your roommate isn’t following social distancing guidelines or someone in your bubble keeps violating the expectations the group has set. Try asking the person to change their behavior and if that doesn’t work, do your best to limit your exposure to them. That could mean switching rooms or nicely asking the person to leave your bubble, depending on how risky you think their behavior is.
11. If you have any symptoms, get tested ASAP (and remind others to do the same)
Following your school’s testing protocols and opting for additional testing when you think you have a symptom is one of the best ways to prevent spread.
Mild symptoms like a stuffy nose, headache, or what feels like allergies could be COVID-19, so you should get tested even if it’s probably nothing, says Dr. Doron. “Schools are really gonna want students to have a severe low threshold to raise the alarm and say ‘I have a symptom, it’s minor but it sounds like I should get tested,'” she explains.
And be sure to stay in the designated testing area until you get your results, Dr. Doron adds. That way, you don’t expose anyone in your dorm if you do, in fact, have the virus.