As Elon University returns to in-person instruction, students and staff are bracing themselves to enforce accountability within the Elon community during a pandemic.
Prior to returning to campus, all Elon University community members were required to sign an electronic disclosure form — The Healthy Elon Commitment.
The commitment, a document filled with guidelines on COVID-19 procedures, is a requirement for all Elon students and employees upon returning to campus. The document outlines suggestions including daily temperature checks, alongside North Carolina mandates including face coverings in indoor spaces and physical distancing procedures.
“Every student should be on this campus now and has signed that honor pledge and commitment,” Jana Patterson, associate vice president for student life and dean of students, said.
Besides Elon, other North Carolina private universities — including Wake Forest and High Point — are also requiring disclosure forms and mandatory testing prior to returning to in-person instruction. But as thousands of students prepare to return to campus within the state, some wonder if these forms will hold students accountable — and if universities are doing enough to hold them to that standard.
“It’s clear that Elon has no genuine infrastructure of protections for faculty, staff, students and campus workers,” junior Liz Clark said at the beginning of the Boldly Elon Solidarity Collective Town Hall on Aug. 3.
As a part of the commitment, Elon community members were required to watch tutorials on hygiene on campus and personal spaces, as well as Biobus physical distancing procedures. Although the videos were listed as a requirement, viewers could skip through the video tutorials before signing the commitment.
If a signature on the commitment was not received or completed, students and employees were repeatedly contacted by a University Advancement official until the requirements were completed. This would occur several weeks before the required Ready & Resilient registration on campus.
A dangerous game
The commitment outlines several guidelines for Elon’s Ready and Resilient plan to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Following state guidelines, Elon plans to restrict unregistered gatherings to 10 individuals for indoor spaces and 25 for outdoor spaces.
Students are required to wear face coverings indoor and in outdoor spaces at all times, especially when in close proximity to others. The consumption of food and beverages is prohibited in classrooms and smaller indoor spaces, combined with six foot physical distancing when eating outside at all times. In addition, overnight guests are prohibited in residence halls, with scheduled visitation hours throughout the week.
Guests are defined as “any individual not assigned to the specific space,” according to the Office of Student Conduct.
Administrators want students to take these guidelines seriously, although they have already seen violations on campus. In a recent interview with Elon News Network, President Connie Book admitted that she had already seen students violating physical distancing guidelines.
“I saw some students walking too close yesterday without their mask. They were outside where you’re not required to always have a mask if you can maintain social distancing. But they weren’t, they were too close. I said ‘hey arms up,’” Book said. “It’s about six feet from arm to arm and so that can give you an easy and friendly accountability.”
For the Elon administration, the danger of spreading COVID-19 lies in the violation of the Elon Commitment and guidelines. For example, if a student violates the campus mask-wearing ordinance, physical distancing procedures indoors and outdoors, consumption of food or liquid in classrooms and small spaces, as well as the guest visitation hours — the student could be charged with a conduct violation and given a warning.
For student organizations, the consequences will be determined by Student Conduct as a group. If organizations are purposely violating guidelines, Patterson said the office will take action if multiple students are violating guidelines.
“We’re not going to contact a group unless there is a reason to contact them,” Patterson said. “It’s just to really reinforce safety measures and self monitoring.”
Besides groups potentially disregarding laws, Patterson acknowledged that there will be students who will “blatantly disregard that.”
The consequences of violating guidelines are dire. According to the Student Handbook, a warning is an official notice of violation from the university. If an offense is classified as under the handbook’s section of “Engaging in behavior that creates a risk of danger to one’s self, others or the university community,” a fine of at least $100 could be given to the violator.
“There can be no warnings or second chances,” wrote Jon Dooley, vice president for student life in his Friday email update.
If a student is charged with a violation, the intentionality of the violation is vital to how the case will be handled, according to Jenni Spangenberg, director of the Office of Student Conduct.
“We review each report on a case-by-case basis as outlined within the Student Handbook,” Spangeberg wrote in an email.
While a warning is the lowest level of a non-academic violation, Spangenberg said further violations could escalate if a student does not show a change in behavior. Because of this, the Healthy Elon Commitment identifies additional repercussions to COVID-19-related violations that would result in a minimum of disciplinary probation, according to Spangenberg.
For example, disciplinary probation would apply if a student attending a gathering that exceeded state limits or consistently refused to follow Ready and Resilient protocol. Any hosts of such gatherings would be suspended from the university.
If a student is placed on disciplinary probation, they could lose study abroad privileges or student leadership positions until they show a “positive change in behaviour” as written to the Student Handbook.
To protect the community, Patterson said the student will be forced to isolate themselves from others between hearings as an interim action filed from the university to protect students.
But other severe actions could escalate beyond disciplinary probation if a student continuously violates university guidelines. As outlined in the Healthy Elon Commitment, this could lead to removal from university housing, interim restriction on campus and suspension from the university, according to Spangenberg,
If a student is caught violating these guidelines, Spangenberg recommends filing a student conduct incident report. Anyone in the Elon community can file these reports — although it’s not guaranteed that they will be anonymous.
Divisions within divisions
Besides the student’s intention, violations are also dependent upon where the occurrence of the violation is taking place. The Elon School of Communications, School of Education, School of Law, School of Business and School of Health are adhering to the Ready and Resilient guidelines.
Even so, some spaces might have different regulations than others. In conjunction with student conduct, schools within the university are implementing additional separate policies to report students.
The School of Communications recently introduced a three-strikes policy for production spaces and organizations. The strikes would occur if a student violated all of the aforementioned Ready & Resilient guidelines.
According to Dean Rochelle Ford, the School of Communications maintains many frequently-shared computer labs and production spaces. Because of this, Ford felt it was necessary to implement the plan via a task force run by faculty.
In the School of Communications COVID-19 Policies for Production Spaces and Student Organizations, the first offense is a written warning to the student and student leader alerting of the violation. The second offense could result in loss of access to a space for a certain period of time for an individual or an organization. The third offense is loss of access to production spaces for an entire semester, which could result in additional disciplinary actions by student conduct.
“I’m going to trust that I will never have to begin enforcing anything,” Ford said.
While other schools within Elon do not have specific enforcements like the School of Communications, they are also watching the situation within their schools and departments closely.
In the College of Arts & Sciences, communications specialist Michael Abernethy said there are no specific guidelines except for sanitization measures within the departments of performing arts and music.
In the School of Business, according to Dean Raghu Tadepalli, students are following Ready & Resilient guidelines and the professional ethics code, which does not contain any specific COVID-19 guidelines.
Following university policy also applies to the School of Education, but Dean Ann Bullock described that COVID-19 guidelines are also dependent on whether a student is also student teaching for the semester.
“We’re following university policies except for student teachers in the field,” Bullock said.
Bullock also mentioned that most of her students will be teaching virtually within the local school systems. As a result, student teachers will have to follow additional precautionary measures that are implemented for on-site teaching.
Elon School of Health Sciences is enacting separate policies, including “isolation teams,” leaving the building during lunch hours, and only returning to the Francis Center once or twice a week.
While certain programs have been in place since March, Dean of the School of Health Sciences Becky Neiduski says that they are still holding students to industry standards.
“Our PT and PA programs have professional behavior expectations that students are held accountable to,” Neiduski wrote. Any violations will be handled by these programs and corresponding medical institutions.
Outside of main campus, Elon Law decided to implement additional COVID-19 policies for students and faculty. Policies include limiting public access to the main facilities, conducting all student organizations and extracurricular activities virtually as well as proper sanitation measures within the library among countless other precautions.
Eric Townsend, director of communications for Elon Law, said the law school is not “doing anything that is different” from the main campus when it comes to handling violations.
Since the law school is separate from the university, conduct violations concerning COVID-19 will be investigated by their separate office of student life. According to Townsend, guidelines are enforced on how the student takes responsibility for their behavior during the investigation.
“I really hesitate to say that there is a one size fits all solution to how we manage our expectations for proper health precautions,” Towsend said.
Enforcement outside the classroom
Beyond the classroom, Elon administrators plan on seeking the help of local law enforcement for continued surveillance and enforcement on those violating state and university COVID-19 guidelines.
“And that’s not to be mean, it's because there’s a government order and you follow the law but equally important that we’ve got to protect the health and safety of our community,” Patterson said.
Since Elon has a mutual aid agreement with other local law enforcement agencies, Book thinks it is essential for students to understand that the mutual aid agreement is for protective measures.
“They should expect that they will be interrupted by Elon Police, Town of Elon Police, or our local police when we have visibility of it,” Book said.
WATCH: President Connie Book addresses the repercussions for violations of COVID-19 guidelines.
But some students feel uncomfortable with the idea of communicating with local law enforcement agencies, especially in the context of police brutality.
Clark, the leader of the Boldly Elon Solidarity Collective, is particularly concerned with the concept of calling local law enforcement to handle any infraction.
“ I know a lot of students I’ve talked to, including myself, are really uncomfortable with this huge gathering,” Clark said. “But I don’t want to call the cops.”
Conduct violations have been confirmed by university communications and Vice President for Student Life Jon Dooley. While the total number of COVID-19 conduct violations throughout the semester has not been released, Student Conduct is unable to release information about the number of conduct cases due to federal restrictions.
Even so, Patterson says that most students are doing “an amazing job” of following guidelines on campus. She has already heard from a local business and an observer that students are wearing masks and following guidelines–– even during a pick-up basketball game.
“I also want to reaffirm the good work of recognizing that folks are being creative,” Patterson said.
But as administrators look toward the recent decision of UNC-Chapel Hill to shift undergraduate classes toward remote instruction shortly after students returned to campus and North Carolina State University, Elon administrators are still planning on students, faculty and staff to hold each other accountable.
“Right now we are enjoying the privilege of living, learning and working on campus at Elon. This will continue only if we remain vigilant and every one of us does our part. Making the right choices ‘most of the time’ won’t work. A single event or gathering can spark a cluster of infections that could spread quickly and force decisions that none of us want,” Dooley wrote in an email to students.
If students do not remain vigilant, Book asserts that the university will.
“Everybody should look at the student code of conduct and say this is what will happen to me because it will happen,” Book said. “Because we are going to be watching.”