As colleges try to tamp down partying by students, administrators consider options for promoting lower-risk — not no-risk — social opportunities and providing a semblance of a normal college experience.

One hallmark of the fall semester so far has been the recurrent theme of college administrators pleading with students to stop partying — and threatening and imposing punishments on those who do — to try to tamp down the spread of COVID-19. But as college administrators try their hardest to stop students from attending crowded indoor parties and bar hopping, the question arises of what they can or should do to help students socialize in lower-risk ways.

To this end, some colleges are creating new outdoor gathering and performance spaces, erecting tents that limited-sized student groups can reserve, and holding film screenings and other student life events in oversize venues like the football stadium.

The University of Notre Dame, which currently reports 51 active COVID-19 cases on campus, has transformed the space between the library and the football stadium into “Library Lawn,” featuring an outdoor lounge area with Adirondack chairs spaced around fire pits and inviting white lights, a stage for student performances and concerts, and lawn games that can be checked out. Students can also borrow lawn blankets, which are washed between uses. Mask use and social distancing are required, and gathering in groups larger than 10 is prohibited.

“The Library Lawn provides a welcoming setting for students to be able to gather safely outdoors, which is what we were hearing from them, that they wanted to get to know students from other residence halls and they wanted a place on campus where it was safe to do that,” said Karen Kennedy, Notre Dame’s director of student centers, activities and events.

The lawn opened earlier this month after Notre Dame emerged from a two-week suspension of in-person classes and activities in response to a surge of COVID cases. As it gets colder, the university plans to install outside heaters on the lawn. Notre Dame’s fall semester is scheduled to end before Thanksgiving.

“We plan on doing outdoor programming as long as we can with the weather here in northern Indiana,” Kennedy said. In addition to offering formal event programming on the lawn, the university is using large outdoor venues including the baseball and football stadiums for events including film screenings and yoga classes.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that all-virtual events pose the lowest risk, outdoor gatherings with physical distancing and mask wearing are lower risk than indoor ones.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said there’s a lot of emphasis in the student affairs field on creative outdoor programming and recreation.

“It’s based on the premise if you offer interesting and engaging activities that have social distancing as a component then you can create some competing activities that maybe would lessen students’ likelihood to gather in party settings,” Kruger said. “That concept’s not new. For decades we’ve been doing alcohol-free programming, for example, in the student union — the idea if you give students something interesting to do, they may choose to do that versus something that is higher risk.”

Kruger said there’s division in the student affairs field about whether campuses should be open to students at all.

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