Should we suspend students for breaking COVID-19 protocols?

Punishing students could have adverse effects

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(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

By Joseph Ellis, Collegian Columnist

This week the Daily Collegian published a piece talking about University of Massachusetts students facing suspension or expulsion for breaking COVID-19 protocols. Nearly 200 students are facing potential disciplinary action, but the surprising thing is that this didn’t happen sooner. Practically every college in the country that has reopened in some capacity has had student parties. Some schools had outbreaks within a week of reopening. The local school committee and residents of Amherst are urging suspension for these students, and while it is tempting to be punitive, I cannot endorse that action.

The case for punishment is clear. Ever since this pandemic started, I have been in varying states of anger at people who ignore guidelines. I remember someone I was living with said he was “willing to take the risk” of getting the virus. The infuriating flaw in this reasoning is that it’s not just you who is at risk. The virus spreads. It starts with one person, and then is passed to other people, so this is not something that we can take the “individual responsibility” approach to. A pandemic is a collective problem, and it needs a collective response. Punishment, however, can be meted out individually. I originally thought we should be like Italy and treat breaking lockdowns like a criminal issue. What if I go out and spread the virus to someone who dies? The result is the same as if I had gone out and murdered them. While in practice it is not so easy to trace, it is infuriating that so many people show utter disregard for their fellow human beings and go out without heeding who they might infect.

But it is important to realize that we are talking about college students. There are a lot of young people who still feel like coronavirus can’t harm them. They feel invincible. If information about the virus had been shared more carefully in the beginning, we would have avoided some of this. The narrative around the virus in the beginning was that it only affects old people and people with underlying health conditions. This is untrue, and even if it were true, it would still justify intervention to save the lives of others, but this framing of the crisis allowed young people to think they are safe. We still have young people who believe it will not affect them, and if they are living in an apartment with young roommates rather than at home near parents or grandparents, they probably figure that they aren’t really endangering anyone.

If that sounds like a rationalization, it probably is, but we have all been through a lot by now. This crisis has been going on for seven months. It has been like this for so long I am starting to forget what life used to be like before. We are lucky if we have food to eat and do not have to worry about being evicted, but the psychological toll of this crisis is still real for us. It is not normal or healthy to keep people sequestered in this way. It is not right to only see the same two or three people, or no one at all. It is a natural human need to be social, and tiny pixels in a Zoom call can never replace that. On that level, it is hard to blame them for going out and partying because they’re susceptible to the mental health costs of this outbreak, like all of us.

So, is it right to suspend them? After all my excuses you might still think so, but we can’t just assume that threats serve as a deterrent. In criminal justice, the severity of the potential sentence does not deter crime nearly as much as the likelihood of being caught. If they believe they will be risking suspension by partying, they might have parties anyway and just not get tested. A positive test might lead to them getting caught. If you punish students for getting tested, then we risk losing what ability we have to track and mitigate the spread of the virus. That also puts the community at higher risk. Suspending them might inadvertently make the problem worse than it already is.

Maybe it makes sense to remove multiple violators by suspending them, but these are off-campus students. They might have leases that last for months or even for a year. Are they just going to abandon those leases because they have been suspended? For all we know, we might end up with a situation where we have a group of suspended students who are just constantly partying. We have already suspended them; how else can we stop them?

We cannot prevent students from moving to the area and having parties. Unless you lock them up, there is not much you can do to stop them from going out and spreading the virus, and locking them up is not under the University’s authority. Unfortunately, the only real solution is to end the pandemic with a quality vaccine, and until we have one, any ideas about reopening, gradually or otherwise, are a fantasy.

Joseph Ellis can be reached at [email protected]