Colleges Create COVID Policies, But Who Will Enforce Them?

By Carter Delegal on July 20, 2020

If colleges and universities are to avoid major outbreaks of COVID-19 this fall, it is clear that many staples of traditional campus life—parties, tailgates and those peculiar study groups consisting of 200-plus sweaty bodies at off-campus fraternities—will have to go away.  And administrators across the country are drafting policies and compacts to ensure just that. But as conversations around these policies start to gain steam, one problematic question has gone unanswered, namely, who will enforce these policies?

Take Princeton’s newly modified “social contract,” which all undergraduates must sign in order to enroll in classes. It outlines a number of sensible guidelines to which students must adhere: wearing masks while in classes, refraining from holding large in-person gatherings, participating in the University’s testing programs, etc. It then goes on to state that “major violations of the Social Contract… may result in removal from campus and/or disciplinary action.”

Again, the logic underlying this regulation is understandable. One student who refuses to follow the rules can end up wreaking havoc for the whole campus, so making violations subject to disciplinary action, even as severe as campus removal, may be a college’s best bet in protecting its community. But conspicuously absent from this social contract is any specification of how these sensible and indeed necessary rules will be enforced (And it seems like Hobbesian appeals to an absolute sovereign will not suffice here.)

Let’s say that a group of fifteen students decide to all hang out one night, gathering indoors, perhaps in one of the student’s dorms. They don’t maintain social distancing, nor do they wear masks. Surely, this would seem to break the policies that Princeton lays out, but who then has the right to break up the fun?

One route might be to encourage students to report others who they deem in violation of the rules. The worry with this solution, though, is that you end up putting students in a constant state of fear. Some might approach this power to report with an appropriate sense of accountability; others might see it as a chance to finally exercise unchecked snitching power on their peers.

Maybe Residential Advisors (RAs), who are typically trained to deal with difficult situations in a measured, caring fashion, would be better COVID-violation police. Given the situation imagined above, an RA could warn the group that they’ll be reported if they don’t stop. They could also inform the group of the things they would have to do in order to be in line with the school’s policies. However, by concentrating the tasks on student workers, we may end up putting an undue and uncomfortable burden on them, making them constantly on the lookout for any form of potentially hazardous socializing. Given the number of students on any given college campus, this seems like too big of a task for any student worker.

The final option would be to involve campus police. By simply making it known that the police could be used to stop violations of COVID-related campus policies, one might reason, students would likely be incentivized to adhere closely to those policies. But this idea has lots of problems. First, it seems excessively punitive to involve campus police officers in matters of proper social distancing. Second, by even invoking the possibility of their involvement, an administration would create an atmosphere of unnecessary fear and anxiety, especially for Black and Latinx students. Such an atmosphere would, among other things, make it difficult for students to focus on their academics. Finally, a move to involve police in enforcing COVID-related campus policies would demonstrate an utter lack of care for the demands of students and the current waves of change. Indeed, many students across the country are urging their universities to end their affiliations with local police departments. Administrators should listen to these calls for change, rather than taking actions that are directly antithetical to their spirit.

It is not exactly clear how schools will enforce compliance with their new COVID policies. Perhaps making RAs responsible for monitoring residential violations could be the way to go, so long as they are adequately supported in their work. Another route might be to hire students who will specifically be tasked with ensuring adherence to new guidelines, as the University of Miami plans to do.

But some may want to reject the enforcement paradigm altogether. As Ellen Yates, a senior at the University of Virginia, tells NPR.: “We are concerned about creating a kind of policing culture on grounds where students feel like they’re being watched or monitored…We want to instead work for accountability between students.” She proposes that student bodies focus their energies on normalizing certain behaviors, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. The idea is to take resources that would otherwise go into enforcement mechanisms and to put them into campaigns stressing the importance of individual responsibility and community well-being, so as to create enough social pressure for most students to comply.

This approach seems to be the most promising. After all, the students who want to be on campus will want to remain on campus, and creating a culture of collective values aimed towards that goal figures to gain support. Some problems might still remain, especially as it relates to enforcing non-public compliance. But the accountability focus could go a long way in ensuring compliance most of the time, with designated students stepping up in case of rarer violations. Moreover, by adopting this model, colleges and universities will avoid some of the unsavory punitive features of other solutions, make students want to comply with campus policies and, in turn, improve their quality of life during this stressful time.

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