BACK TO CAMPUS DURING COVID-19
5 Things Students and Parents Need to Consider
Before 2020, back-to-school shopping meant buying a backpack, new bed sheets, and maybe a mini-fridge. This summer, it means stocking up on hand-sanitizer, face masks, and thermometers. Indeed, parents and students have much to be concerned about when returning to campus, and possibly a second wave of COVID-19, this fall. Colleges and universities are making plans to keep students safe, but will it be enough to stop the spread of a highly contagious virus that has confounded the nation’s top public health officials?
As much as we learn about COVID-19 every day, college administrators are figuring out more on how they will have to adapt to the challenges of being responsible for students on campus during this pandemic. Different colleges are implementing diverse policies and procedures based on their own risks, geographic locations and student demographics, so not all guidelines will be universally applied. The policies for a small, liberal arts college in New England may be radically different from that of a large university in southern Florida.
And once you get to campus, your school may not be the right fit for you or your student. Due to the changing environment, college administrators may change regulations abruptly and students’ rights may become a casualty of these confusing circumstances. Prior to leaving for campus, and certainly once you get there, if you find the college or boarding school’s pandemic protection plan leaves you feeling uncomfortable with your level of risk exposure, contact an attorney experienced in the COVID-19 campus risks before you sign a school’s waiver. Here are five considerations parents and students should carefully review in their school’s policy and waiver statements.
- KEEPING SAFE IN DORMS AND COMMUNAL LIVING
We know that the virus is highly contagious and spreads quickly through human contact. So, what steps are colleges and universities taking to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among students in dorms and residence areas? The answer is it varies widely from campus to campus. Some important questions to consider: Will dorm rooms be single, double or triple residency? Will communal bathrooms still be used, and will steps be taken to limit the number of residents on a floor? If one student contracts COVID-19 in a dorm, will the entire floor be quarantined and will there be contact tracing? Students and parents should also inquire about the regularity of cleaning and sanitizing regimens in living and common areas.
2. SOCIAL DISTANCING AND LARGE GATHERINGS
In the short-run, the traditional campus experience may be unrecognizable at many schools. Large lecture halls, football games, fraternity parties and communal dining halls may be dramatically different or even eliminated altogether. Libraries may be forced to close, eliminating access to study space, technology and books. Masks will most likely be mandatory, as will be 6 feet of social distancing. Class sizes may be reduced to no more than 25 or even 10 people, and some schools may see their athletics programs put on hold. Students involved in arts programs and scholarship athletics may lose opportunities to perform.
3. NEW CODES OF CONDUCT AND WAIVERS MAY BE REQUIRED
A number of colleges are changing their codes of conduct to hold students accountable for social distancing policies and not putting others at risk for contracting COVID-19. For example, the University of Colorado at Boulder will mandate that its students follow coronavirus-related public health rules on and off campus or face “consequences”. Students should know what these policies are and what their responsibility may be should they unknowingly violate them. In some cases, they could face charges from local law enforcement, suspension, or even expulsion. And while students may be on the hook for their actions, in some states, colleges and universities are pushing their elected officials to grant them immunity from lawsuits from the spread of COVID-19.
4. ABBREVIATED SCHOOL CALENDARS
Colleges must be prepared to shut down and evacuate quickly should an outbreak occur, and so many schools are changing their calendars in the event a second wave of COVID-19occurs in the fall. Epidemiologists have warned that an outbreak could occur after students return from Thanksgiving break, which is why a number of schools have adjusted their calendars to end the fall semester prior to Thanksgiving. The Universities of North Carolina at Greensboro, Notre Dame, South Carolina, San Diego, Texas at Austin, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill are among schools cutting their fall semesters short. There is also the chance that campuses may be evacuated before Thanksgiving, due to an outbreak, so parents and students must make contingency plans should they need to come home earlier than scheduled.
5. THE COST OF DISTANCE LEARNING
Finally, some schools have already made the decision not to have students return to campus for a fall semester and will only offer classes on-line through distance learning. This is problematic for those without access to technology, and it also takes away from the in-person college experience. For many, a substantial part of going to college is learning to live independently and forge new relationships, something distance learning does not offer. And given the extraordinary cost of many colleges and universities, some students may decide it is not worth the expense to take online courses that do not offer the opportunity of a live classroom setting, meaningful social opportunities, exposure to the arts, and campus athletics.
In the wake of COVID-19, higher education is a big business that must reinvent itself with a combination of intense planning and flexibility, as even our nation’s top health officials cannot predict what will happen next. In turn, students and parents must weigh the costs and risks of their campus health plans, along with the consequences for any violations of the resulting new code of conduct policies,and seek legal consultation if necessary for what is right for their individual needs.
Andrew Miltenberg is a New York attorney who specializes in Title IX and campus assault due process. He is currently engaged in several groundbreaking Title IX cases, including a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against Michigan State University. According to Title IX experts, Miltenberg has filed more Title IX lawsuits than any single law firm in the country.