Earlier this fall, Occidental College junior Luigi Maruani laid in bed anxious and angry, swiping through his phone. His 75-year-old father had just contracted the coronavirus, and Maruani felt the federal government wasn’t responding to the pandemic with enough urgency.

A post in a Facebook group for students living off-campus caught his eye. 

“We’ve heard some rumblings and want to be clear about infections within our small community,” senior Avani Johnson wrote. “If you end up testing positive for COVID-19, please just be transparent about it and let the community know so we can figure out if anyone in our houses may have been in contact with you and we can contain the spread. Embarrassment is not an excuse for lack of communication!” 

Maruani jumped into action, creating a Google Doc where students living in off-campus houses could anonymously share test results, and posting it to the group.

“I just thought it would be a good idea to sort of hold each other accountable and then be safe,”  he recounted.

While images of maskless, partying coeds have gone viral this semester, other students are working to keep themselves and their peers safe from COVID-19 — holding workshops on virus prevention, signing up to clean and monitor campus buildings, and shaming their peers who break the rules. With coronavirus cases spiking nationwide, and campuses serving as hotspots for transmission — 6,531 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at 78 California colleges as of Nov. 19, according to data from The New York Times — these student-led efforts could become even more important as schools plan for the spring. 

In some cases, students are filling gaps in institutional responses. On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a new stay-at-home order that will apply to any of the state’s five regions if ICU capacity there drops below 15%, and colleges are largely planning to continue online classes in the spring. But even with remote learning, students have flocked to campus communities, and colleges have often been unable to regulate their behavior — especially off school property. University policies about whether to require students to be tested for the virus have varied, and large outbreaks have occurred on California State University campuses, including more than 1,400 cases at San Diego State and more than 600 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. By helping to educate their peers, students say, they can have some measure of control in an uncertain situation.  

Student-run Instagram accounts are shaming partiers in neighborhoods like Isla Vista, near UC Santa Barbara. “People will come to IV to party whether they are living there or not,” said the student running one account.

Cal State Long Beach senior Megan Winzler has been trying to keep her fellow students immune from misinformation spread on social media. 

A microbiology major and president of the university’s American Society of Microbiology chapter, Winzler is fluent in viruses. She said she felt responsible to share her knowledge after seeing some students exhibit questionable pandemic behavior. 

“I have an acquaintance on Instagram who was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s date number three,’ and that is the opposite of the guidelines. You’re not supposed to be meeting new people without your mask. They’re probably going to, you know, get it on — and that’s definitely a COVID violation,” Winzler said. 

In response, Winzler rallied the members of the previously dormant club to create a series of Zoom workshops educating students on pandemic safety. At the first one, titled “Coffee with COVID,” Winzler went over everything from misconceptions about the virus to the importance of wearing the correct mask. Six people attended, she said, asking questions about how to understand case number data and the effectiveness of mask-wearing.

A flyer created by University of Southern California student Jacob Tamkin encourages recovered COVID patients to donate their plasma

Some students are motivated by an awareness of how their own actions affect the residents of surrounding neighborhoods. The day before Halloween, the University of Southern California’s undergraduate student government sent a message to the campus community urging them to follow local health guidelines banning parties.

“Our campus is located in a neighborhood of Los Angeles that is home to a diverse group of Angelenos,” the message read. “It is well documented that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and our actions as USC students directly impact these very communities that we interact with daily.” 

USC sophomore Jacob Tamkin was diagnosed with COVID-19 in September. Once he recovered, he started hearing about people donating their plasma, which can help patients battling the virus. 

Working with USC administrators, faculty and students, Tamkin created a flyer promoting plasma donation, which he plans to circulate throughout the USC community. 

“As a USC student and an LA native, I thought generating a plasma drive with USC students would be not only a great way to give back to Los Angeles as a greater community, but also the community surrounding USC, which is a predominantly lower income neighborhood,” Tamkin said. 

For Nancy Nguyen, a graduate student at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, it was the experience of her own Vietnamese-speaking family that inspired her to join the school’s  COVID-19 Multilingual Project. A team of students and professors run social media pages in English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese with tips for staying healthy during the pandemic, and pass out flyers in neighborhoods around the university.

Nguyen said she’s seen older relatives be misled by faulty coronavirus messaging. Because of her public health expertise and ability to translate from English to Vietnamese, she was in a unique position to relay reliable information to her family. And as COVID-19 got worse, Nguyen yearned to help others.

“I’m sure like a lot of folks felt similarly, but I felt a sense of helplessness,” Nguyen said. “What can I do? I’m not a medical professional. I’m not on the front lines or anything.”

Those feelings are driving a lot of the student advocacy around the coronavirus, said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California San Francisco. Students are motivated by both altruism and self-preservation, he said.

“They realize that they’re in a cauldron of potential transmission, and they want to try and protect themselves and by extension protect their families,” he said. They’re also uniquely skilled in communicating with their peers.

“So when you tell (other students) ‘No, you can’t visit your grandmother for Thanksgiving,’ it doesn’t come as some abstract voice from on high,” Dr. Rutherford said. “It’s somebody telling you in your language, in a way that’s culturally appropriate, that this is what you’re going to have to do.”

A strong COVID prevention strategy should include both community-led efforts and administrative policy, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of USC Student Health. 

“I think without the strong policy and enforcement and central leadership, it’s not going to work,” Van Orman said. “But that alone is also not the answer, because the community has to really believe it, and accept it as part of the culture for that community.”

Maskless partiers spill out of an apartment in the Isla Vista neighborhood near UC Santa Barbara on Oct. 9, 2020. Photo by Max Abrams

To that end, a few campuses have given students jobs as campus safety ambassadors, helping to enforce coronavirus guidelines. 

UC Irvine’s team of 200 ambassadors post social media messages about handwashing and physical distancing, hand out masks, and remind their peers to do daily symptom checks.

At Sacramento State, safety ambassadors are positioned at the entrances and exits of open buildings, where they hand out masks, carry hand sanitizer and wipe down door handles that have been touched. They also open doors for people and press elevator buttons to ensure fewer people are touching surfaces. The position has provided income for students who lost their jobs at on-campus eateries or as resident advisors. 

Sacramento State junior Daveion Harris said some of his fellow ambassadors had run into trouble with students who didn’t want to wear masks. But he likes the job, which he described as good preparation for his future career as an elementary school teacher. 

“As well as helping the community out, I’ll be helping myself make sure that I know the proper things to do to protect myself from COVID-19,” he said. 

While these kinds of student roles are important, Van Orman said, they don’t excuse universities from taking responsibility for things like testing and contact tracing. “Those are really kind of university responsibilities.”

Students admit that it is difficult to measure how much of an impact their efforts have made on their communities. Maruani’s Google Doc for reporting test results only garnered a few updates — though off-campus students will now have the option to join Occidental’s testing regimen in the spring. Winzler said that even though her workshops are small, she hopes they have a ripple effect.

But maybe the most successful student-run COVID campaign has been the Instagram accounts that report and shame pandemic partiers at USC, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and other campuses.

The @ucsb.party Instagram account combines photos of large gatherings in Isla Vista — a neighborhood near UC Santa Barbara where an estimated 90% of the 15,000 residents are college students — set to audio of pandemic news headlines and personal accounts of coronavirus survivors.

“People will come to IV to party because it’s just got that reputation, whether they are living there or not,” said the student who started the account, who asked to be anonymous to avoid the wrath of angry partygoers. The account started as a class project; an accompanying website offers suggestions on how the university and fraternities could crack down on ragers, and encourages students to report parties. The idea, said the student, was to use social pressure to drive change.

After the account helped fuel increased attention on gatherings in Isla Vista, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors passed new ordinances Oct. 20 allowing for fines and other punishment for violations of state health regulations. 

While shutting down a party might normally be frowned upon, the student said they wear the badge of an informer proudly. 

“I think that right now times are different,” they said, “and I think right now being a snitch is very necessary to save people’s lives.” 

Reagan, Getahun and Beck are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and students journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Hannah Getahun

Hannah is the health intern at CalMatters, and her stories focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Before this, she was a fellow for the CalMatters College Journalism Network, where she reported on the effects...