This article is part of a series about coronavirus on campus during the Fall 2020 semester.
No guests in dorm rooms. Students shuttled off to Whipple Park residences to isolate. Routine testing and daily Dr. Chatbot surveys. The fall 2020 semester saw the University implementing dozens of new policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Like other years, students were made well aware of the new rules before the semester started. But unlike a usual semester, students weren’t sure how the policies would be enforced — or the punishment for breaking the rules.
To introduce the new policies, UR created the COVID-19 Community Commitment. The student-specific version of the commitment outlines worked to get students on board with UR’s new normal, explaining that the goal of these policies is “to protect the health of our community, including all students, faculty members, and staff living and working on our campuses.”
New rules required new systems of enforcement. The incident report form, usually used for bias-related incidents (racism, homophobia, sexism, etc.), was tweaked to include issues of noncompliance with COVID-19 policies.
When a violation is reported, whether through the concern form, by public safety, or by an RA, a conduct officer sends a letter informing someone that they’ve been accused of violating policy, according to Assistant Dean of Students Kyle Orton, who serves as the University’s Judicial Officer. Often, this results in a meeting with someone from the Center for Student Conflict Management (CSCM), which Orton says he tries to keep educational and restorative.
Sanctions for conduct violations range in severity. Often, students are given a warning, an educational punishment (such as writing a paper on the dangers of illegal substances), and are internally tagged in the office’s system. More severe sanctions appear on a student’s semi-public conduct record, which would be revealed when applying to graduate schools or certain on-campus positions. But major violations can result in more severe punishments.
According to Orton, several new COVID-19-related offenses can lead to removal from campus, including repeated refusal to comply with policies, hosting large parties with alcohol, and prematurely leaving quarantine or isolation. But parties are hard to hide when students aren’t allowed any guests in their dorms; subsequently, the most common way that people are removed from University housing is for repeat offenses.
Much of the goal of the conduct system is to ensure that students follow policies. This year, contact tracing is extremely important in preventing further spread. It was crucial that CSCM developed incentives to encourage community self-reporting. Similar in spirit to medical amnesty, students who are found through contact tracing to have violated COVID-19 policy will receive a less severe punishment than normal. This is meant to encourage students to be honest about, say, having gone into a friend’s dorm room, to accurately track COVID-19 exposures on campus. According to Orton, CSCM is trying to keep sanctions at the warning level.
“Students should not be afraid […] to get help for themselves in a medical emergency,” Orton said. “We’re not trying to catch people; we’re trying to prevent it happening in the future.” A warning helps students understand the potential consequences of their actions, and allows CSCM to educate the students involved about the importance of staying COVID-19-safe.
To further incentivize student honesty with contact tracers, on-campus tracers do not share information with CSCM, according to Head Athletic Trainer Eric Rozen, who is involved in contact tracing of athletes. The decision to separate the two banks of information came from CSCM and the Office of the Dean of Students, according to Vice Provost and Director of the University Health Service Dr. Ralph Manchester.
According to Orton, the new rules resulted in conduct violation and sanction numbers soaring, with the guest policy especially causing conflict. Orton believed that other popular violations, such as marijuana use or underage drinking, went down. Additionally, probation, which is a reportable sanction, was much more common this semester as there were more people found to have violated multiple policies at once, such as underaged drinking while in another person’s room.
But the guest policy is not the only way that UR is keeping gatherings in check. Off-campus events can also result in sanctions.
“If the behavior is putting the [UR] community at risk — or the surrounding area that we’re part of at risk — we can always hold somebody accountable,” Orton said.
This semester saw an increase in the number of times groups, such as clubs, Greek life organizations, and athletic teams, needed to be pulled in to talk about conduct issues. Orton said that this was entirely expected due to the additional layer of social gathering rules.
Although at least two sports teams had to halt their seasons as a result of outbreaks, no member of those teams was willing to speak to the Campus Times on the record to confirm which teams these were or the circumstances that led to their seasons being paused.
Rozen said that though it’s impossible to be certain, no spread seemed to be traced to athletic activities. “We don’t know where they’re going outside [practice],” Rozen said. “We are calling it the 20-hour rule […] we don’t know what they’re doing 20 hours a day that they’re not with athletics.”
One fraternity had an outbreak with 11 COVID-19 cases, but according to Fraternity and Sorority Affairs Director John DiSarro, this was the result of communal living as opposed to unauthorized gatherings. DiSarro stressed that no special rules applied to Greek organizations.
Additionally, some students who are members of Greek organizations or sports teams expressed frustration that many concern forms were filed against their organization without any evidence or truth.
Several students interviewed for this series complained about violations they reported through the concern form that seemed to result in no consequences. Orton stressed that all conduct cases are confidential (meaning that the reporter might not be notified of further actions) and decided on a case-by-case basis.
“The majority of those — if the truth is what the student is saying, and we knew about that — whatever they think should happen probably did happen,” he said.
But not every report contains all the information necessary to pursue a conduct case. If there’s no identifying information about the suspected violator, CSCM can’t do much to find them. Additionally, if there is little hard evidence proving a violation, and the accused meets with CSCM and denies the action, sanctions likely won’t be given.
Put differently, the conduct process as it applies to COVID-19 relies on members of the University community holding themselves and each other accountable.
COVID-19 requires a very different framework for conduct than violations of other policies. “Underage drinking rarely has a negative impact on others, except for cases like drunk driving and things like that,” Orton said. “But COVID[-19] violations could easily impact our entire community.”
Haven Worley and Hailie Higgins contributed to the reporting for this article.