Colleges want their students back this fall. That much is clear.
What’s less clear are the new rules for student conduct in the midst of a pandemic, and how universities will go about enforcing them, especially when the offensive behavior takes place off-campus – or overnight.
The University of Texas at Austin, for example, has banned parties, both on campus and off, saying they put “the health and safety of our community at risk and raise anxiety levels.”
Tulane University in New Orleans threatened suspension or expulsion for students who throw or attend parties that have more than 15 people and asked students to monitor and report on the behavior of their peers.
“Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?” the message to students concluded.
University of Pennsylvania officials have asked that students refrain from organizing parties while prohibiting students on campus from having “guests” in their “personal space.” In regards to off-campus sleepovers, the university advised that students are “strongly discouraged” against hosting guests during the semester.
A fraternity on Locust Walk is going to throw a party this fall with a blatant disrespect for the health risk of college students spreading COVID (potentially asymptomatically!) in the West Philadelphia community. We’re just calling it now…
— CAFSA Penn (@CAFSAPenn) July 31, 2020
With lives at stake, higher education leaders want to avoid the potential spread of coronavirus that comes with reconvening, in some cases, tens of thousands of students in confined spaces.
Jobs are at stake, too. The beleaguered budgets of many universities, already hard hit by the challenges of shifting to online instruction during the spring, need students back on campus to help pay the bills. University towns need them to fill apartments, restaurants and shops.
But to make it all work, college officials will have to rein in the natural boundary-testing behavior of young adults – a thorny, and seemingly impossible, challenge.
“Every college administrator and college president understands that this is a pretty tenuous thing that they’re trying to do,” said Kevin Kruger, the president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “How you control the behavior of a large number of adolescents in spaces that are not under institutional control is a big challenge.”
A poll from Axios and College Reaction offered a ray of sunshine: Nearly 80% of students said they wouldn’t attend parties like those held before COVID-19 if they happen.
But a survey of nearly 8,000 faculty, staff and graduate students at Purdue University clouded that outlook: 92% of respondents said students wouldn’t get the message about off-campus social distancing.
And a group of students at the University of Kentucky sparred with the institution on Twitter over its reopening plans. Specifically, the group questioned the university’s testing plans and its ability to control students off-campus. The university stood by its protocols and said it had faith in its students.
You trust a bunch of 18 and mid 20 kids who burned down a car on state street because they beat Florida to not attend a IFC party? Not to go to Tin Roof? Seems like a bit of willful ignorance.
— Movement for Black Lives UKY (@blacklivesuky) August 4, 2020
Some universities have already shown a willingness to punish students who flout protections against the coronavirus. On Thursday, Syracuse University – which had suspended a fraternity for violating social distancing rules in the spring – said it had also suspended a group of students for “knowingly violating quarantine orders,” spokeswoman Sarah Scalese said.
“Our students have expressed repeatedly their desire to be on campus this fall,” she added. “Our ability to resume residential learning is very much dependent on our community’s behavior and willingness to adhere to public health guidelines.”
Still, flare-ups persisted even during the relative quiet of the summer in venues ranging from college bars to fraternity houses and athletic programs. A return to a sense of normalcy – with in-person classes, football games, and fraternities and sororities rushing new members – will bring a whole new level of difficulty.
While fraternities often find themselves at the center of any conversation about out-of-control campus life, many have moved their traditional social gatherings, like recruitment of new members, into the digital space, said Judson Horras, the president of the North American Interfraternity Conference.
Because students mingle among different social groups, Horras said any attempts to curtail social behavior would have to apply to all student groups, not just fraternities and sororities.
“If they see across the street alumni or student groups tailgating or having events that aren’t in a fraternity house,” Horras said, “it will fall apart.”
For many colleges, the focus has been on positive reinforcement measures, such as designating ambassadors to encourage fellow students to follow safety rules. But they do have some authority to punish students for off-campus behavior, Kruger noted.
In extreme cases such as those involving sexual violence or academic dishonesty, colleges could consider expulsion. Throwing a party with 30 to 40 people could be viewed as endangerment to the community.
But, Kruger added, busting big off-campus parties presents another challenge: Who faces punishment? Is it only the host or everyone who attends? And if you threaten punishment, how do you manage the contact tracing that’s essential to limiting an outbreak?
“You’ve added a factor that would maybe make students reluctant to tell anybody where they were or who they’re with if they were going to be consequences,” Kruger said.
Sternly worded warnings and an ambiguous threat of punishment will be inadequate to reassure some students. Samantha Price, a junior at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, has Type 1 diabetes, which makes attending classes in person during a pandemic a threatening prospect.
Fearing that too many of her peers don’t realize the consequences of their actions, she has scheduled all her classes online in the fall.
“People are anxious to get back on campus and get back to whatever type of normalcy that you can get to,” she said, “even if it means harming those students like myself who are immunocompromised.”
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: To slow COVID spread, colleges turn party killers with new rules