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'COVID-19 IRL': Western Washington University students use social media to educate incoming students

'COVID-19 IRL' (In Real Life) is a social media campaign started by Western Washington University students for students to help them learn about the coronavirus.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — With only 1,300 hundred of the normally 4,000 students living on campus returning this week, life is much quieter under coronavirus at Western Washington University (WWU).

But that doesn't mean it's any more calm.

"I'm definitely worried about school starting back up and what thousands of students moving back up to Bellingham means for the community and for COVID infection rates," said grad student Hunter Stuehm.

Stuehm is a member of student government at WWU.

He said 90% of students surveyed said they wear masks and social distance while in public, but that number drops to 40% when they're with friends and family. 

"It's frustrating to see young people not being responsible," he said. "That behavior is inappropriate and inexcusable, but I also don't think we achieve anything by vilifying young people."

That's where COVID-19 IRL (In Real Life) comes in. It's a social media campaign by students for students at WWU in conjunction with health officials.

It started on move in day with a splashy graphic and salty language designed to relate directly to young people.

Stuehm, who has an underlying condition, is among those pushing the program.

"We can speak in their voice. We can use expletives. We can use a different voice that sounds and looks different than administrators or health officials," he explained.

The campaign covers every thing from getting flu shots (instead of booze shots) to sex and dating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It encourages students to have those admittedly awkward, but important conversations.

But what happens when the beer inevitably starts flowing and concerns over coronavirus become hazy?

"You make it a culture shift," said WWU Public Health Professor Steve Bennett. "You make it not incumbent on the individual, but incumbent on the group. If students are talking to students and they're saying they want to have classes in person again, they want the rugby club to start playing again, hopefully, they'll just do this."

Organizers said they're already having success with the campaign with shares and retweets. WWU is working with health officials to expand the campaign to 18-26 year-olds off campus, as well.