Public health professors say social distancing isn’t just for campus

Two masked students walk on campus on the first day of Fall Semester. Public health professors encourage students to practice similar social distancing measures off campus. (Preston Crawley)

Public health professors say they’re optimistic BYU can remain open this fall, but a lot depends on how students practice physical distancing when they’re off campus.

Parties, church activities and informal gatherings pose a big potential risk if conducted incorrectly, according to Carl Hanson, chair of public health in the College of Life Sciences.

“The pain points are with larger social gatherings, where physical distancing and mask-wearing is not happening,” Hanson said. He explained that while the university has a coherent plan to fight the virus on campus, “it’s probably much more difficult to (social distance) in your dorm room.”

For Chantel Sloan, the main concern is housing. Sloan, who teaches a course on infectious disease prevention and control, recommended students who spend time with people outside their households should wear masks. She said this same rule should be applied when students are outdoors and can’t maintain six feet of distance.

This flow chart, created by Chantel Sloan, shows students when they should wear a mask. (Chantel Sloan)

“I really hope we don’t have to close before Thanksgiving. The likelihood of that happening depends on student, faculty and staff compliance and how seriously we take it. A virus doesn’t care about how hard we worked to prep or how many stations we’ve set up to disinfect. If there’s a path for it to transmit down easily, it’s going to take it,” Sloan said.

Rosemary Thackeray, assistant to the president for assessment and planning, encouraged students to follow guidelines from state and local officials. “Remember that compassion is contagious,” she said.

Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said BYU may revert to remote coursework at any time during the semester. Jenkins said several BYU COVID-19 committees were responsible for the fall semester plans and they are continuing to assess the situation.

There are 128 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus as of Sept. 7, just one week after the beginning of Fall Semester. Gatherings of up to 200 people, many of whom were not wearing masks, were reported last week at Heritage and Helaman Halls, and parties have occurred off campus. Still, several professors of public health expressed optimism that with responsible behavior, things could start looking up.

“I think the measures that we’re taking in the classroom and with social distancing and mask-wearing will make a difference,” said Jim Johnston, another professor in the public health department. He encouraged students to keep things in perspective and remember that the restrictions will not last forever.

Hanson said he has felt motivated by the examples of his students. “Their sense of commitment to doing what they can is inspiring,” he said. “With that, I’m optimistic.”

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