UNR students battle COVID complacency

Social Media campaign takes aim at rebellious attitude on campus

PHOTO/ROSS BUHLER-BROWN: The statue of John Mackay on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus wears a mask these days.

There’s a good reason why some college students are not following COVID-19 health precautions and mandates: they think the restrictions are stupid.

That was one of the results of a survey of University of Nevada, Reno students conducted about two months ago. The survey by the Wolf Pack Relations team indicated many UNR students believe their population is not at risk or recovery is easy and so precautions aren’t a priority. The results of the poll echoed comments that journalism professor Todd Felts has heard from students in his classes.

“Some students are pretty complacent,” Felts said. “Their big questions were: ‘why are we doing all this? Why can’t we get back to normal?’ My reaction is, really? Are you serious? This is a serious business.”

Felts, journalism Prof. Allison Gaulden and some of their students are now trying to change attitudes about dealing with the threat of COVID-19. They want to affect behavior on campus and also make a difference in how students act when they go home for the remainder of this semester. The campaign – called #DoItFor2021  – is underway on social media, with an in-person component at UNR.

Peer-to-peer campaign created

The first step, Felts said, was to understand why presumably rational young people would reject advice designed to protect public health. “Wanting to have the college experience outweighs the messages (students) are getting about wearing masks and social distancing,” Felts said. “The bottom line is masks save lives. It was fascinating to me that that message – which has reached saturation levels – has become cliché in the minds of some students. I was surprised that not everybody was on board.”

Prof. Todd Felts, University of Nevada, Reno.

The college experience, he said, is a limited experiment lasting for four years of students’ lives. They have expectations of what is supposed to be happening in the experiment, but the pandemic “shut down their lab” this year, he said. “They don’t know how to process that. Preaching isn’t going to help. We have to appeal to their rational side.”

#DoItFor2021 is a two-pronged assault on attitudes and designed by students to reach their peers. The first wave is aimed at educating students about how their behavior today will affect the campus — and their lives — next semester. If the spread of the virus remains uncontrolled, Felts said, it will “determine what happens to them next year, affecting everything they want to do, from walking across the stage for graduation to attending a music festival.”

The mask is the message

The messages, about looking forward to 2021, are displayed on the face masks of students and pushed out on social media. “We got a lot of really good responses,” he said. The other leg of the awareness campaign is aimed at turning students’ focus to their loved ones and how they may be affected by a students’ cavalier attitudes about COVID-19.

“They are going home (for Thanksgiving break) and they’ve got to keep their grandmas safe,” Felts said. “It’s not just about what they do. Here on campus they are surrounded by other young people, but they are going home among people who are older and at a much higher risk for complications from COVID.

“We want them to take a moment to think about the relationships they have with their families,” he said. The project produced a series of short videos in which lone students hold up framed photos of family members or other loved ones to remind their peers of the support they had in being able to be on campus in the first place.

Thinking about others’ health

“We want them to think back to that parent, teacher, coach, sister who made it possible for them to break through the mold and become college students; to think back to that moment how they felt when they got accepted and made plans to leave and come to Reno.”

Ross Buhler-Brown, one of the students working on the media campaign, said there is some “COVID fatigue” on campus among students who just want to get back to the normal college experience. Some of his peers take the threat of the pandemic seriously and observe precautions. Others would rather deny the dangers.

“Some, like me, are seniors, so the mindset for a lot of those people is that they don’t really care what happens,” he said. “They think, ‘if I get sick I get sick. I’m young; I’ll just shake it off.’ Some do have the mindset of not caring what they do, or who they may affect. That’s what we’re trying to change with this campaign.”

 Some students will stay in Reno

He said a lot of students choose to stay on campus over the Thanksgiving break and not take a chance of bringing the virus home. Others want to stay in Reno and party.

“There is definitely some rebellion,” Buhler-Brown said. “We need to change that. What we do today affects our tomorrow and it affects others… We can act now and make sure that 2021 is better than 2020.”

He’s a fraternity member and said the campaign is especially targeting members of the campus Greek community who have attended parties that helped drive campus case numbers up this semester. Students featured in the campaign’s videos wearing masks and holding up photos of loved ones also are members of fraternities and sororities.

 “Words alone aren’t going to work. We can’t just tell people; we have to show them. It’s not all bad. There are students here who really care.”

– Ross Buhler-Brown, UNR student working on the #DoItFor2021 campaign.

The awareness campaign, produced in cooperation with the City of Reno andWolf Pack Relations, has already received accolades from UNR President Brian Sandoval. Felts said social media metrics show the effort is reaching 18 to 24-year-olds and being widely shared across platforms.

 “We’ll keep an eye on what’s developing,” he said. He noted that the target audience is armored against changing its ways because students’ expectations of the college experience have been so disrupted by the pandemic.

PHOTO/WENEI PHILIMON: Students Costte Mazet and Richard Kienfer on the UNR campus in early November.

‘They didn’t sign up for this’

“One of the fun things about going to college getting away from parents and making decisions on your own,” Felts said. “Then this major health crisis comes along and suddenly the students have to go back home and… what? Take classes in their bedrooms? They didn’t sign up for this. It’s difficult audience. We’re fighting something they have a romantic relationship with.”

John Mackay statue on UNR campus.

The romance vanished in 2020: Roommates are scattered to the winds. Dorms are abandoned. The campus became a ghost town with a few masked specters flitting among buildings that once teemed with youthful energy. A way of life that youngsters had been looking forward to for years is suddenly off limits at the very moment they are on the cusp of adulthood.

“I’m trying to become more empathetic,” Felts said. “We’re doing what is called social-media listening to see which videos may be effective, what’s working.  It’s all part of a strategy to reach a large number of students.

“We’re trying to get the message out as widely as we can.”

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