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  • Emanne Khan

College in the Time of COVID: Boston Schools Use Strict Punishments to Deter Rule-Breakers

The fall semester is well under way for the many universities located in Boston, America's largest "college town." Amid the reopening of campuses, each school has adapted differently to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some universities including Boston University and Northeastern University have invited all students back to campus, while other universities, such as Harvard University, are limiting the capacity of students allowed to return to campus. Overall, all universities are implementing strict rules to reduce the spread of the virus. Not even one month into reopening, a group of 11 freshmen have been suspended from Northeastern after violating the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Although, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people under the age of 24 make up less than 1% of U.S. virus deaths, these guidelines are in place to protect vulnerable members of the student body and faculty as well as the surrounding communities. The September 4th suspensions have been a harsh reminder that universities in the city are taking the pandemic very seriously.

Only two days after a party 11 Northeastern freshmen attended at Boston’s Westin Hotel, Northeastern announced that they had dismissed all of the students who were in attendance. The students were participating in Northeastern’s “” program, which typically sends first-years on trips abroad but is taking place in Boston this semester. Before beginning the program, the students were required to read and follow a set of safety guidelines. Northeastern’s Guide to Residence Hall Living strictly prohibits students from hosting anyone in their rooms who is not assigned to live there. After the 11 students were caught together in one room by staff members, they were dismissed by the university for the remainder of the fall semester and ordered to undergo COVID-19 testing. If someone in the group tested positive, they were required to isolate in university housing; if negative, they had to leave the hotel and return home. According to an article from Northeastern’s official news website, the students were given the option to challenge their dismissal at a hearing.

Madeleine Estabrook, Northeastern’s senior vice chancellor for student affairs, justified the automatic suspension by stressing the impact individual actions can have on communities at large. “Those people who do not follow the guidelines—including wearing masks, avoiding parties and other gatherings, practicing healthy distancing, washing your hands, and getting tested—are putting everyone else at risk,” Estabrook said in a statement.

News of the 11 students’ dismissal spread rapidly to media outlets across the U.S. One point that has attracted considerable attention is Northeastern’s refusal to refund the suspended students’ tuition, which is prepaid and costs $36,500. Deanna Schwartz, managing editor of Northeastern’s student newspaper The Huntington News, told NPR on September 8 that she thinks “most students believe the university was just to suspend the students but are outraged that Northeastern won't refund their tuition.” That same day, conducted a poll asking readers whether they felt it was right for Northeastern to suspend the students without refunding their tuition. Out of the 6,552 respondents, 51% agreed with the university’s decision to suspend the students but disagreed with their decision to keep the tuition money; 30% agreed with both decisions, and 17% agreed with neither. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters on September 8 that he feels “terrible” for the students and their families, but believes their punishment “sends a pretty powerful message” about the seriousness of adhering to safety guidelines. While it is important to recognize the 11 students’ immense monetary loss, it is equally important to acknowledge that Northeastern had previously made clear the severe consequences they would face if they violated explicit social distancing rules.

Northeastern might be the first Boston school to face public scrutiny for its COVID-era disciplinary policies, but other colleges in the area have developed their own rules that will be similarly tested in the coming months.

At the start of the semester, Boston University (BU), which is implementing a hybrid learning model, required all students returning to campus to agree to a set of “Health Commitments and Expectations.” These include mandatory face coverings, daily symptom attestations, and twice-weekly testing. In the case that a student tests positive for COVID-19, they must submit to contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation. According to the BU Dean of Students website, the first time a student misses a scheduled test or symptom attestation, they will receive a warning message; if they ignore the warning, their student ID and campus WiFi access will be disabled. If the student misses two more tests or symptom checks, they will have to leave campus and finish the semester remotely.

The rules surrounding gatherings at BU are somewhat stricter: students are not permitted to host guests in their rooms who do not live in their assigned residence hall. As for parties, students who host or attend large gatherings of more than 25 people--whether on- or off-campus--will be required to vacate university housing and, like at Northeastern, suspended for the fall semester with no tuition or room and board refunds. BU has both an online form and phone hotline that students can use to report large gatherings. On September 10, the university began to publish a weekly compliance summary to track the number of reports made, in addition to other campus compliance statistics. As reported on BU’s COVID compliance report, from August 26 to September 10, there were 24 reports of BU students not social distancing in public, 29 reports of off-campus gatherings without face coverings, ten reports of on-campus gatherings without face coverings, and two fraternity parties reported in advance and canceled. Additionally, Associate Provost and Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore told the Boston Globe that nine students stand to be suspended (without refund) if they violate another rule after they were caught together in a dorm room without masks. Another 15 students could face probation for attending an off-campus housewarming party. Unlike Northeastern, BU is giving these students a second chance to comply with the rules, as gatherings under 25 do not warrant automatic suspension.

Echoing Estabrook’s statement on the ripple effects of risky behavior, Elmore said that BU is not refunding students who are suspended for COVID-related violations to deter students from potentially harming people around them. “We're in a situation where there's not a lot of room for error," Elmore told the Globe. “We're in a different environment, and we've got to employ different approaches. Nobody wants to be shut down. If we drag our feet . . . we run the risk of exposing people unnecessarily."

Like Northeastern and BU, Boston College also lists suspension amongst the possible consequences of hosting or attending parties, and Wentworth Institute of Technology is another area school utilizing tough punishments to ensure compliance with COVID safety procedures. According to the previously mentioned Boston Globe article covering BU’s approach to rule enforcement, an unspecified number of Wentworth students who violated various distancing policies have already been kicked out of campus housing pending a disciplinary hearing. Harvard University has created a Community Council with the authority to remove students who fail to abide by rules from campus housing, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston similarly reserves the right to remove non-complying students from residence halls.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges across the country are struggling to ward off outbreaks. The two largest schools in Boston, Northeastern and Boston universities, have turned to non-refundable suspensions as a means of deterring unsafe behavior amongst students. While many people feel that colleges should not keep the money of students who are suspended, a recent smattering of COVID cases at Boston College serves as a grim reminder of how easily community health can be jeopardized. The coming months will determine whether or not schools that swiftly crack down on rule-breakers are more or less successful at containing the virus than their peers.


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