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University of Colorado at Boulder students celebrate graduation outside a home in the University Hill neighborhood in Boulder on May 7.

Jeremy Papasso/

As colleges unveil intricate reopening plans to regularly test and trace students for coronavirus infection when they return to campuses this fall, large graduation celebrations among students in recent weeks have served as stark reminders of the difficult work that lies ahead.

Widely circulated videos and news images of students partying -- without face masks and seemingly oblivious to social distancing guidelines -- made it clear that protecting students from each other, as well as the larger campus and neighboring communities, will not be limited to classrooms and residence halls.

Groups of students from Providence College, a small Catholic institution in Rhode Island, were spotted partying on May 16 on a street where lots off-campus housing is located. Most were without face coverings and standing close to one another, despite Governor Gina Raimondo’s latest order continuing social distancing rules. Similar behavior was captured near the University of Colorado at Boulder earlier this month. Police reported multiple parties of 20 or more people occurring just before the state’s stay-at-home order was lifted; they issued citations for alcohol use but none for violating the state's public health order, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

Ann Manchester-Molak, vice president for external relations at Providence College, said the gatherings on Eaton Street were a result of “poor judgment and decision making” by students and parents who wanted to celebrate graduating seniors. The parties drew some complaints from neighbors. Although police broke up the gatherings, they did not cite or reprimand students, Manchester-Molak said. She expressed some sympathy for students who had been learning remotely since March and whose commencement ceremony was moved to October.

“There was a lot of pent-up energy and it was a beautiful day,” she said. “How do you enforce social distancing among any community that has a tendency to want to gather?”

Kat Kerwin, a Providence city councilwoman, took a dim view of the celebrations. On Twitter, she criticized the students’ behavior and issued a statement noting the neighborhood has been one of the hardest hit in the state by the pandemic. Kerwin said she was “irate” to learn of students partying in a neighborhood that is home to many working-class and low-income residents who are essential workers and at higher risk of infection.

“There’s no understanding of the implications of partying in a neighborhood like mine, where people are dying of COVID-19,” said Kerwin, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I get wanting to celebrate and I get that this is a big achievement, but it just feels really, really selfish to be doing this in a community that’s not yours at the expense of people who can’t just leave.”

The college plans to have students return to a “fully operational” campus in the fall, and administrators are discussing how to enforce social distancing and other state and local guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, including the possibility of adding a coronavirus-specific addendum to the code of conduct or the college’s good neighbor policy for students living both on and off-campus, Manchester-Molak said. The college had about 675 students, nearly all seniors, living off-campus during the 2019-20 academic year, said Steven Maurano, associate vice president of public affairs, government and community relations.

But policing student behavior off-campus is complicated because the college doesn’t have oversight in private apartment settings, Manchester-Molak said.

“When you’re on campus, that’s the home of our public safety and security. You’ve got people on patrol and ability to respond in a more timely fashion,” she said. “When you’re off-campus, we have to figure it out. Maybe there’s some messaging that’s going out or routine checking to make sure there’s compliance with the guidelines … We don’t know how we will handle that, quite frankly.”

Martha Compton, president of the Association of Student Conduct Administrators, or ASCA, compared colleges’ social distancing enforcement plans to the way some campuses have banned the use of tobacco products by educating students from a public health standpoint first, and only reprimanding for repeat noncompliance with conduct codes, Compton said. Colleges will not be successful in promoting good behavior if they have an initially “derisive” response, she said.

“It’s sort of like any public health campaign we’ve had in the country,” Compton said. “This is going to be a transition, it’s not going to be instantaneous … We’re going to have to be patient with folks, as a country and a society getting used to a transition.”

Compton said college leaders should first educate students about more recent COVID-19 data that shows young, traditional college-aged people can be severely sickened by the illness, as well as identify the risks that social gatherings pose to more vulnerable people in their communities. If students repeatedly do not follow precautions, by refusing to wear masks or continuing to gather close to one another, that’s when colleges could apply existing and broad “failure to comply” provisions in their conduct codes to sanction students, or a coronavirus-specific provision, which some institutions are creating, she said.

“That’s kind of a last resort,” Compton said. “We’ve been operating from a ‘correction and education’ standpoint.”

CU Boulder officials, who have not yet announced whether the university will open next fall, are preparing in case it does. They're considering the mixture of educational and disciplinary measures to ensure students are following public health guidelines, according to recommendations released last week by the university's 2020-21 planning team. Students and staff members will be expected to maintain their distance and follow state and local orders “at all times,” the recommendations said. The team also suggested officials add compliance with public health orders to the university conduct code and launch an awareness campaign using social media and incentives to encourage “positive behaviors.”

The university has already had problems with students off-campus not following social distancing guidelines after classes moved fully online for the spring semester. Local residents were upset about students having parties on the front lawns of houses in the University Hill neighborhood in Boulder during what was originally scheduled to be graduation day on May 7, said Candace Smith, assistant vice chancellor for strategic media relations.

Melanie Marquez Parra, chief spokesperson for the university, said CU Boulder has been reminding students of local social distancing guidelines.

“The university continues to work within its long-standing and productive relationship with the University Hill neighborhood organization and its partnership with the city to address feedback received about behaviors seen in areas where students live,” Parra said in an email.

A longtime resident of the neighborhood and CU Boulder employee said she has seen students continuously ignoring public health orders and partying at private houses not just to celebrate graduation, but throughout the spring. The students have exhibited a “total disregard” for nonstudent neighbors, some of whom are elderly and more vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19, she said. The resident said she is not confident this behavior will change if students are welcomed back for on-campus classes in the fall.

“It’s going to be a different world and there are going to be different expectations for students to take responsibility,” said the resident, who wanted to remain anonymous. “I am skeptical of that happening … All of us who aren’t college students hope strongly it will be different, but the fear is that students will not change their behavior and that will have implications for our community and university.”

The resident said collaboration between the university, neighborhood and city of Boulder to address these issues has been promising. Parra said even if behavior that violates the student code occurs off-campus, the university can initiate a conduct process, but local authorities typically handle these complaints. Chana Goussetis, a spokesperson for Boulder County Public Health, said most residents have been "respectful and responsive" when police have asked large groups to disperse. The county will be working with CU Boulder on its efforts to educate students, Goussetis said in an email.

"We will continue our 'education first' approach and will work with law enforcement to increase enforcement as needed," she wrote. "These are extremely difficult times for everyone, so our preference is not to assess fines or jail time; however, it is our responsibility to protect public health, so we will act if needed."

The resident said she knows some of the partiers to be members of fraternities and sororities. The neighborhood is home to 22 fraternities that comprise the Interfraternity Council on The Hill, an independent group of organizations that are made up of CU Boulder students, which is not affiliated with the university and over which the university has no jurisdiction, said Marc Stine, a nonstudent adviser for the council. Adam Wenzlaff, president of IFC on The Hill and a rising senior, said the IFC on The Hill has “not been made aware of any fraternities hosting parties.”

The IFC on The Hill has a moratorium on social events, which will continue until there’s direction from local and state authorities about necessary social distancing measures, Wenzlaff said. Fraternity chapters and members have accepted the moratorium as something “necessary” and “inevitable” thus far, Wenzlaff said. Stine said he could see IFC on The Hill adopting specific social distancing policies or individual chapters doing so based on their size.

“The IFC cannot promulgate one rule that works for the chapter of 25 and for the 180. Social distancing is a good example,” Stine said. “Probably not hard to do with a group of 25, but probably some significant challenges with a group of 180 … They gotta do it. It’s just not the university’s business.”

While the university may have the authority to discipline individual students through its conduct code, it cannot force rules on the IFC on The Hill, Stine said. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a civil liberties watchdog that frequently defends the rights of students against overbearing conduct codes, will be paying close attention to the measures colleges put in place to enforce social distancing, said Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy.

Creeley said colleges do have the authority to govern social distancing within the confines of campus, but there’s concern they will “overextend their reach” into private, off-campus residences. He expects colleges to make the argument that the pandemic does not allow for clear jurisdictional boundaries to be drawn because a student does not “leave the disease at the gates of the university” when they come onto campus.

“If students are living off-campus, we expect them to be granted the degree of autonomy and respect that we would any citizen,” Creeley said. “We would imagine that social distancing requirements in dorms, student unions and academic buildings will be relatively straightforward and uncontroversial. It’s the interactions beyond the campus gates that will be interesting.”

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