Dive Brief:

  • As coronavirus outbreaks crop up on college campuses, administrators have become more aggressive in their reactions and messaging, admonishing students for behavior that flouts health rules and in some cases, punishing them for it. 

  • Campus leaders have suspended students, kicked them out of housing and publicly pinned blame on those who officials say are ruining the fall experience for their peers.

  • About a fifth of U.S. institutions are moving forward with primarily in-person instruction, data shows, though the sector fears those colleges will be unable to protect campuses amid a rise in verified cases.

Dive Insight:

Before the academic year began, behavioral experts told Education Dive it was unlikely college students would follow the stringent policies administrators put in place to try to mitigate the virus.

Some students still host and attend parties, in blatant disregard of the rules, the experts said. But many others would facilitate the virus’s spread through more innocuous actions, such as chatting too closely with a friend or forgetting to wear a mask.

Their predictions have proven correct, as campuses nationwide report social gatherings and outbreaks early in the school year. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shifted courses online after at least 130 positive cases were reported in its first week of classes. 

Administrators have responded by rebuking what they describe as reckless behavior. The UNC System’s new president, Peter Hans, released a statement Thursday deriding a “very small number of students” whose off-campus actions “unfairly” punished the “vast majority” of those who were following the guidelines, he said. 

Officials at Vanderbilt University, in a series of tweets, told students it wouldn’t tolerate them going to parties, and ignoring safety measures like mask-wearing and social distancing. The statement hinted at criminal penalties for students, too.

“We write this not to scare you but to be perfectly plain: The situation happening at other universities can be avoided at Vanderbilt, but only if you anchor down, step up, and do your part,” the officials wrote. 

Other colleges have already come down on students for rule violations. 

Purdue University, whose president has been a vocal proponent of reopening campuses, suspended at least 36 students for attending a party.

Radford University suspended at least three students for failing to comply with its coronavirus guidelines. University of Connecticut administrators evicted several students from on-campus housing following reports of a crowded party in a dorm room.

And Pennsylvania State University placed a fraternity chapter on an interim suspension after it had a party, which was documented and spread on social media. The students had violated the university’s rule barring “socials of any kind” for Greek life organizations.

“We need to impress upon all of us the seriousness of this situation, which begins by enforcing the basic requirements of social distancing and masking, and we’re determined to do so as clearly and consistently as we can,” Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president for Student Affairs, said in a statement.

These social gatherings can exacerbate the virus’s spread. As the College of the Holy Cross noted in a recent statement, at least one person who attended a recent party at an off-campus apartment tested positive for the virus, and several others were potentially positive.

“Needless to say, this is a profoundly disappointing situation. The students responsible for the party will be held accountable under our Community Standards process,” college officials said in the statement. 

The scare tactics colleges are employing could easily backfire, said Anna Song, a health psychology professor at the University of California, Merced, who studies adolescent behavior.

If the messages are too extreme, students may not believe them. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, is that really going to happen?’,” Song said. 

The brain also continues to develop through someone’s mid-20s, and so administrators can’t count on students to make rational decisions. 

“They just don’t have the fully developed mechanisms,” Song said.

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