Kuntzman: Suspend and ban students who fail to comply with social distancing guidelines

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Columnist

As the fall semester started last week, Case Western Reserve University reported that 10 students tested positive for COVID-19. Given the number of tests conducted and the size of the student population, CWRU’s number of confirmed cases is fairly low. However, over 60 students have been placed in quarantine so far, indicating the potential for the number of coronavirus cases to rise. 

CWRU has taken many measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission on campus, such as providing students with masks and testing, installing plexiglass shields in classrooms and significantly reducing the number of students in on-campus housing. However, none of these measures can ultimately control what students choose to do.

As CWRU noted in an email to students on Aug. 19, the campus community has a “shared responsibility” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The university cannot force students to not host or attend off-campus gatherings, like those that have forced other universities to move online or temporarily suspend in-person classes. Keeping the university open this semester will depend on students making good choices, but CWRU could provide a stronger incentive for students to consider their actions by committing to suspending students who repeatedly fail to comply with social distancing measures, and barring them from returning to campus in the spring (in addition to any other sanctions the university deems appropriate). These violations would include hosting or attending large in-person gatherings. 

In the same email, CWRU noted that failure to comply with guidelines could result in referral to the Student Code of Conduct; however, the email was not very specific about what would happen to students who were non-compliant. Given the gravity of the reality that a handful of students failing to follow the rules could result in other students or staff becoming sick or even dying, CWRU needs to remove students who endanger the campus community. 

Suspending students who fail to comply with social distancing measures would not be unprecedented. St. Olaf College, Syracuse University and Purdue University have all suspended students for attending off-campus parties. While suspending students would not necessarily cause them to leave the Cleveland area or stop interacting with other CWRU students, it would be on the student’s disciplinary record for eight years. This could affect students’ future plans, as most graduate schools and other universities often require that students share their disciplinary record. These collective implications would hopefully encourage students to comply with the rules. 

Similarly, barring students from on-campus living and in-person classes in the spring wouldn’t guarantee that they would be cut off from the CWRU community, but it would significantly reduce the appeal to returning. Furthermore, part of the university’s plan to make campus safer was to reduce the number of students on campus. While CWRU has not stated at this time if second- and third-year students will be invited back to on-campus housing in the spring, it would make more sense to ban non-compliant students from living on-campus than nearly two full classes of the student body. 

There is no way for CWRU to completely eliminate the risk of any students or faculty contracting the coronavirus without completely moving online, but announcing a plan to strictly enforce punishment for repeated and severe violations of social distancing guidelines could encourage students to follow them. 

As CWRU noted in the guidelines for responding to people who fail to comply with social distancing, there will be some cases where people genuinely forget about the guidelines, such as a student leaving their mask in their dorm. In these cases—assuming the person is apologetic and willing to use a surgical mask for the time being—the person in question should be shown grace as it could be a genuine mistake. In cases where students commit more egregious violations of social distancing guidelines or repeatedly fail to follow guidelines, the university needs to respond more firmly in order to prioritize the health and safety of the community and reduce the likelihood of the university being forced to move online.