Colleges should not blame their students for COVID-19 outbreaks

College students have been put through hell for the last six months. They’ve been ripped away from their school friends, needed to readjust to living and studying at home and are constantly worried about an uncertain future. And some college students have unfortunately tacked one more issue onto the list – being scapegoated for COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses.

Northeastern University recently made news for the draconian way it disciplined students who were caught hanging out maskless in a residence hall. Not only were the students expelled, but the university refused to return any of their nearly $40,000 in tuition for the semester. Students and parents were rightly aghast. But this episode is only one example of a troubling trend of colleges blaming their students for COVID-19 outbreaks that should have been administrators’ job to prevent. Solely relying on students’ willpower to prevent outbreaks on campuses is naive – and if colleges aren’t willing to confront the reality of in-person education during a pandemic, then they should follow GW’s lead and keep campuses closed until it is over.

Colleges that have reopened campuses – even in a limited capacity – risk causing virus outbreaks. The chief solution that some universities – including Northeastern, apparently – have come up with is to place the onus on students to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. And if students break the rules, their university hangs them out to dry and heaps scorn on the student body for being reckless and selfish. Other schools like Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh have suspended students for partying, but Northeastern’s response was unique in its severity.

The simple reality of pandemic-era college education is that students are going to gather if given the chance. Students watched the lives they had built at college collapse as the pandemic brought the world to its knees. Most then spent six months in their childhood homes, with the best substitute for social interaction being a grainy Zoom image on their laptop screen. Not to mention they have watched their government fail to fight the virus in a way that prevents death and economic disarray. After enduring the unendurable for half a year, there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that students will try and claw back any semblance of normalcy they can if campuses reopen. When nearly half of young people are presenting signs of anxiety or depression because of the stress and isolation of the pandemic, reuniting with their friends is not a capricious luxury – it is a survival instinct.

To be fair, it would be foolhardy and wrong to merely suggest that students who violate mask mandates and flaunt social distancing rules are justified in doing so. Plenty of rule-breaking can be chalked up to sheer foolishness – like fraternities covering up COVID-19 diagnoses or holding parties. But that is not the point – the point is that relying on the threat of punishment is a cynical, naive and ineffectual way to prevent college students from congregating. Colleges need to have empathy and realize that college students will walk over broken glass right now if it means human contact – and they should shape policy accordingly. And if there is no safe way for students to gather and spend time together safely, then campuses simply should not reopen. GW made that agonizing decision – administrators put the health and well-being of students first and foremost. Even though bringing the student body back to Foggy Bottom would have been the smartest choice for the University’s tanking budget, the risks of an outbreak were too high to justify that course of action. More colleges should make that same calculation and follow the path GW has taken.

It is on everybody – including college students – to be responsible citizens and comply with pandemic-era restrictions. But slip-ups are inevitable for those experiencing unfathomable stress and loneliness. If colleges are going to blame their students and take their tuition money instead of figuring out ways to make campus living safe, then campuses should not open in person at all this academic year.

Andrew Sugrue, a junior majoring in political communication, is the contributing opinions editor.

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