COVID on Campus and Student Conduct Issues

A student with mask in campus.Covid-19 has changed the way we work, play, and study. Indeed, there may never be any ”getting back to normal,” if by “normal” we mean the way life used to be. Colleges, no less than any other social institution, have been forced to adapt to the new reality of a dangerous, contagious virus that isn’t going away any time soon.

The New Rules

A number of policies have been instituted worldwide to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, including:

  • The cancellation of large-scale formal events such as football and basketball games;
  • Prohibitions against private events such as fraternity and house parties, even when they occur off-campus;
  • The mandatory wearing of masks in certain situations;
  • Social distancing rules that mandate six feet of separation between any two people under certain circumstances (such as restaurants and other indoor venues);
  • Limitations on the size of groups allowed into certain public spaces, including classrooms;
  • Remote learning (via Zoom or teleconferencing, for example);
  • The outright closure of certain types of establishments such as gyms; and
  • Many other measures, too numerous to list here.

Enforcement

Some of the foregoing rules are voluntary, while others are mandatory with increasingly severe sanctions for each successive violation. Furthermore, policies and enforcement priorities vary widely from institution to institution. The policies that apply at the University of California Irvine (see below) are fairly typical of policies that apply on campuses nationwide, but they are not universal.

Sample Enforcement Policies: UC Irvine

The following represents general guidance, not ironclad rules, regarding the nature and enforcement of COVID-19 related restrictions. The university may tighten or relax these rules or may enforce them more strictly or more leniently as the situation demands.

Advisory Letter

An advisory letter is the most lenient sanction available if it can be called a sanction at all. An advisory letter may be issued to a student or to a campus organization if, for example, the student or organization violates a restriction but immediately complies in response to a reminder. Examples might include:

  • Failure to wear a face mask where one is required;
  • Failure to adhere to social distancing guidelines; or
  • Failure to comply with a Daily Symptom Check.

Level 1 Sanctions

A Level 1 sanction typically involves a warning and perhaps an educational component. Level 1 sanctions might apply under the same circumstances as an offense for which an Advisory Letter may be issued, or it may apply to a repeat offender who has already been issued an Advisory Letter.

Level 2 Sanctions

Level 2 sanctions typically apply when an offense for which an Advisory Letter or Level 1 sanction was issued is followed by a subsequent, more serious offense. Behavior that might trigger Level 2 sanctions might include:

  • An individual fails to complete Healthy Practices Training after a reminder has been issued;
  • An individual fails to complete required COVID testing after receiving a reminder; or
  • An individual repeatedly violates an Executive Directive.

Sanctions might include:

  • Disciplinary probation.
  • Prohibition against entering or crossing through any areas of campus except those strictly necessary to attend classes and/or access on-campus housing.
  • The requirement to write a reflection paper or attend classes designed to correct undesirable behavior.

Level 3 Sanctions

Level 3 sanctions are typically imposed in response to (i) third offense violations of COVID-19 safety measures or (ii) an “egregious and deliberate” violation of such measures or of a COVID-19-related Executive Directive. 

Examples of violations that might trigger Level 3 sanctions:

  • An individual or organization hosts or attends a party;
  • An individual or organization deliberately disregards or flagrantly refuses to comply with an Executive Directive;
  • An individual boards a university shuttle without a face mask after being warned to wear one;
  • An individual or organization intentionally disregards the health and safety of others; or
  • An individual or organization repeatedly violates any safety measure or Executive Directive.

The typical sanction is suspension from campus and from university activities (including classes), the duration of which is dependent on the severity of the violation.

Level 4 Sanctions

Level 4 sanctions are the most serious type of sanction, and penalties can include permanent dismissal from the university.

Level 4 sanctions can be triggered when a student or campus organization commits a fourth offense or a particularly serious first, second, or third offense.

Examples of behavior that can trigger a Level 4 sanction include:

  • An individual hosts a large party or gathering;
  • An individual consistently disregards or refuses to comply with an Executive Order;
  • An individual behaves in a manner that blatantly threatens the health of others (deliberately sneezing or coughing on people, etc.); or
  • An individual appears on campus while knowing or reasonably suspecting that he has become infected with COVID-19.

Student Misbehavior and the Explosion of Infection Rates

Students in campus despite COVID-19.Well over half of all US states have reported instances of COVID-19 on in-state college campuses. This prompted the shutdown of university campuses and the widespread use of distance learning at the height of the COVID-9 lockdown, beginning in March 2020.

Students of college-age, however, are notorious for engaging in reckless behavior powered by a sense of personal invulnerability. Fear of COVID-19 does not deter many students from violating safety rules any more than fear of a car crash, a sexual assault, or a DUI arrest deters many students from heavy drinking.

Add to this age-related immaturity the fact that most college students who contract COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms or (sometimes) no symptoms at all, and you have a formula for widespread disregard of health and safety guidelines, despite the deadly consequences that might ensue if a student with even mild symptoms infects someone more vulnerable, such as a senior citizen. Some examples of recent incidents are described below.

Outbreaks and Incidents at the Beginning of the 2020 Fall Semester

  • Over 175 students tested positive for COVID-19 at Iowa State University.
  • Campus police at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts broke up a large off-campus party attended primarily by Holy Cross students. According to police, attendees were not wearing masks and were ignoring social distancing guidelines.
  • Over 20 cases of COVID-19 were discovered at a single sorority house at Oklahoma State University.
  • At the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox tweeted a photo of a large group of maskless university students gathered in the downtown area.

University Responses

Some universities are responding aggressively to COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses, including the use of disciplinary sanctions against students who ignore safety rules.

  • Purdue University suspended 36 students found at a party that violated social distancing rules.
  • 23 Syracuse University students were suspended over an on-campus party.
  • Drake University suspended 14 students for two weeks for attending parties. The affected students are not allowed to set foot on campus during this time. Two weeks is approximately the maximum incubation period for COVID-19 symptoms to appear.
  • Several University of Connecticut students were evicted from student housing in response to dormitory parties. Several days later, the university announced that 11 students had tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Duke University is investigating several cases of misconduct and non-compliance with COVID-19 safety rules. Possible sanctions include probation, suspension, or even permanent dismissal from the university.

A Return to Distance Learning?

Distance learning has been the rule rather than the exception ever since draconian COVID-19 lockdowns began in March 2020. Although some had hoped that college campuses would return to some semblance of normality for the Fall semester, actual circumstances seem to be gravitating in the opposite direction:

  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was forced to cancel classes and return to distance learning when 130 students tested positive and the overall campus positivity rate surged to over 13 percent – after only a week of classes.
  • After only eight days, Notre Dame canceled in-person classes in favor of distance learning when it discovered 336 students infected with COVID-19. Although the suspension of in-person classes was scheduled for only two weeks, many observers expect it to last indefinitely. The huge jump in infections was attributed mainly to off-campus gatherings, which are difficult for university officials to control.
  • Other colleges and universities that will rely on distance learning at least through the Fall semester include Ithaca College, Michigan State University (with nearly 50,000 students), the University of Pennsylvania, and elite universities Stanford and Brown.
  • Non-student residents of college towns whose colleges are inviting students back to campus are growing increasingly concerned. Residents of Somerville and Medford, Massachusetts, for example, protested outside of the Tufts University president’s house over this issue, and concerns have been expressed elsewhere in the US.

Contact E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy with Your Concerns

If you believe that you have been unfairly targeted or singled out for violation of COVID-19 restrictions or, alternatively, if you believe that your institution’s lax enforcement of COVID-19 safety measures is putting your health in jeopardy, contact us to find out how you can fight back.

If you are in any trouble with the New York state or the federal criminal justice system, or with your university, you need to seize the initiative before they do. Contact E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy for a free initial consultation by filling out our online contact page or by calling one of our offices in Albany, Colonie, Latham, Saratoga, or Troy. We look forward to hearing from you!