Could heavy-handed approach to campus partying be counterproductive?

Some say crackdowns will discourage reporting of COVID symptoms

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC is reshaping the most basic aspects of social life at college — playing Cards Against Humanity in the common room with a few friends, or going off campus for beer pong and dance parties. Now, most activities involving non-roommates are forbidden fruit, limited by area universities to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The penalties are big — being kicked out of student housing, barred from campus, and unable to take fall classes at some universities.

But some experts now say that those measures could be counterproductive, causing students to clam up about symptoms or where they had spent time if they become ill.

Students who host or attend on- or off-campus gatherings of more than 25 people will face suspension for the remainder of fall semester, Boston University’s dean of students, Kenneth Elmore, announced in an email to students Monday.

At Northeastern, more than 100 incoming freshmen who responded affirmatively to a poll on the Northeastern Class of 2024 Instagram account (some in jest) about attending parties this fall received an email from the university warning them of consequences if they fail to follow social distancing restrictions. Organizers of parties have been told they will face consequences if they don’t cancel the gatherings.

Students at Northeastern must sign a “Expectations for Return to Campus Attestation,” an agreement required of all students returning to the campus. If students don’t adhere to the rules, their offers of admission will be rescinded. Students are also asked to sign an agreement to practice social distancing, take coronavirus tests, and wear masks. 

At Boston University, a similar agreement was pushed at undergraduates, graduate students, and even faculty, with the latter at risk of losing their jobs if they break the rules. The latter two groups are protesting those harsh punishments.

At Emerson College, guidelines say that students not following COVID-related policies “will be subject to sanctions up to and including suspension from housing, suspension from the college, and separation from the college.”

Across the country, there have already been known incidents of students not taking COVID rules seriously. But should the penalties be so extreme? And might the threat of those penalties undermine the very cause they aim to further?

Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, thinks so. “Policing of students on social media and in-person is counterproductive and will hamper public health efforts.” she told Greater Boston” host Adam Reilly. “Expectations for student behavior are largely unrealistic right now,” said Marcus, pointing to things like requiring students close their doors at all times when they’re in their dorm rooms.  

What officials don’t want, she said, is students being reluctant to disclose COVID-19 symptoms or an event they attended out of fear of being kicked off campus. Knowing where and when students interacted with each other in large groups is integral to maintaining effective contact tracing and keeping the infection rate low.

Norman Siegel, a civil liberties lawyer, told the New York Times that it is unfair of colleges, which invited students back to campus, to punish nonconforming behavior too harshly.  

He said the institutions have a responsibility to persuade students to put public health above the desire to get into large group settings. “If they don’t set that up, they can’t transfer the problem to teenagers,” Siegel said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Proactive measures like testing that covers the entire student body should be conducted every 72 hours, Marcus said. “That’s a tall order, but that seems to be what needs to be in place to contain the spread,” she said. 

At BU, five testing sites are set up with the plan to process 6,000 to 8,000 tests a day. The university invited its 22,000 students back to campus, but it’s unclear at this point how many plan to return for in-person learning.