Students with internships are in a unique position because they are still engaged in distinctive elements of campus culture — including living in co-inhabited spaces, attending packed classrooms, and sharing resources such as gyms, labs and equipment — while also working in a professional setting. A distinctive element of student internships is working off campus, and these internships may involve varying degrees of health and safety protocols. This aspect, in addition to the aforementioned general student risks, presents student interns with health and safety challenges during a pandemic. Student interns share many risks with education students. Risk of exposure and transmission chains become larger when considering the diverse, crowded and changing environments student interns navigate.
Prior to beginning internships, students may visit various internship sites before committing to one. Social distancing can become difficult under these circumstances and the increased movement of students can contribute to viral transmission. Policy and procedure for internship sites, internship site seeking, and group work will need to be implemented to ensure health and safety measures are considered.
During a typical internship, students interview for them, travel to other cities, work with others, and engage in activities that are overseen by internship sites. These environments vary and can be in places where the risk of exposure to disease, including the novel coronavirus, is higher. Risk of infection and transmission can be high due to close contact with others, unclear health and safety protocols, environment type (hospital, clinic, lab, school) and increased student movement (transportation, travel, etc.).
Schools often lack complete oversight, especially when students are seeking their own internship sites. This lack of supervision could result in students unintentionally taking on greater risk and as a result, greater exposure. Students risk spreading the virus on campus, in their communities, at their internship sites, and even between internship sites. These sites will need confidence that students are not significantly contributing to workplace infection rates and reduced company productivity.
It is well documented that workplaces have served as sites for disease outbreaks.1 It is paramount that internship risks are considered and that students be given the proper training, protocols, policy and procedures to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
A responsible plan for bringing students back to campus, which accounts for the unique experience at internships, should be a condition. Additionally, institutions of higher education should prepare to enact a plan that supports testing, isolation, quarantine, contact tracing, reduced movement between multiple sites and enhanced disease surveillance. This plan should foster strong communication with internship sites. Furthermore, there is a moral and ethical obligation for schools to protect the health and safety of students, their communities and their partner organizations.
1. Su, C. et al. Case Investigations of Infectious Diseases Occurring in Workplaces, United States, 2006–2015 – Volume 25, Number 3—March 2019 – Emerging Infectious Diseases journal – CDC. doi:10.3201/eid2503.180708.