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Navigating Student Privacy Within FERPADavid Tuttle
Fall term at most colleges and universities is in full swing — even if it resembles no other school year in history.
Before leaving for campus, parents armed students with a COVID-19 go bag (in case of emergency quarantine) and plenty of masks and sanitizing supplies along with other quarantine essentials. Knowing there were risks involved if students returned to campus, many families decided the risk was worth the reward.
If your student is attending in-person classes, or living on campus and attending class online, you may have questions related to the rules and risks of returning to campus.
Schools spent the summer preparing for fall and making sure students would be safe. Many colleges and universities have implemented regular testing for every on-campus student along with quarantine protocols. Some set up tents outside to promote social distancing in larger classes or for distribution of carry-out meals so that students aren't congregating in dining halls.
Colleges have set additional rules for students to follow: no parties, no trips off campus and no outside guests on campus.
Colleges have made every effort to make sure your student is safe while attending school during the pandemic. It’s the responsibility of the student to follow those rules and maintain safe health practices.
Many colleges asked students to sign liability waivers before returning to campus. These waivers are a reminder to students that they are responsible for abiding by health and safety guidelines while attending class and/or living on campus. But even if students are asked before arrival to sign waivers absolving universities of responsibility, the enforceability of such documents may depend upon state laws.
Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, told Reuters that “institutions are very nervous that even if they play by the rules scrupulously they will still be subject to class action lawsuits.” She also said that defending such lawsuits would take money away “from financial aid for students.”
Kyle Logue, a professor at the University of Michigan’s law school who studies insurance, tax and tort law, said,
Even without liability protection, a student who got sick would face an uphill battle if they decided to hold their university responsible. In order to win the claim, a student would have to prove that the school had a duty to protect them, breached that duty, and that breach of duty was the cause of their illness. If a student was able to prove those elements of a claim, a judge or jury could reduce the amount of money they receive to the extent a student’s own choices contributed to the harm.
Student health services and other care organizations were prepared for the returning student population. Quarantine protocols are in place along with quarantine facilities (sometimes a dorm set aside for the purpose, sometimes a block of rooms in a local hotel). If your student tests positive for COVID-19 on campus, the college should provide plenty of support. Your student will be monitored by student health services and you will be informed as well.
For example, according to a North Carolina news source, Duke students who test positive will be isolated and may be temporarily reassigned to quarantine space on East Campus, but will be kept separate from those who have not received a positive test result. NC State students who test positive will follow isolation instructions that adhere to CDC guidance and be monitored by Student Health Services. Roommates, suite mates and apartment mates will be considered “family units” and included in the guidance.
Despite these preparations, there have been multiple stories of students complaining of neglect, bad food and more during quarantine as illustrated in this episode of the podcast The Daily, "Quarantine on a College Campus." You'll want to stay in close contact with your student in case they need help getting information or the care and supplies they need.
Don’t expect a refund on tuition if campus closes since many colleges have already either cut tuition or are offering students a discount. If classes move online, you shouldn’t expect a refund either.
As far as meals and housing, refunds could be more likely according to the NY Post. “Many colleges aren’t publicizing their shutdown contingency plans — or how refunds will work. But students can look to how their school handled refunds in the spring to gauge how fall might play out.”
If you student disobeys the guidelines or violates the waiver they signed before returning to campus, they can expect consequences. After interviewing college representatives, Politico reported,
School leaders are dishing out suspensions, kicking students out of dorms and sanctioning Greek organizations over large gatherings during a budding semester that already has seen colleges close amid thousands of confirmed COVID-19 cases and dozens of deaths. In some cases students face the ultimate penalty of expulsion for disobeying mask rules while their schools set up tip lines and scour social media for any hint of parties or social distancing violations, both on and off campus.
It's important to note that students living off campus have been the source of most of the COVID-19 cases reported so far this fall. Off-campus students are subject to the same rules and requirements as those on campus and are also responsible for following city and county ordinances related to the pandemic (as well as other things like noise, nuisance properties, etc.).
Boulder County, home of the University of Colorado Boulder, just took the very dramatic and extreme measure of prohibiting all gatherings of any size among non-household members between the ages of 18–22. The county has identified properties in town where occupants were disobeying rules about wearing masks and restricting gatherings to 10 or fewer people and students living at these properties must stay at home except for essential travel and activities. All CU students are temporarily taking classes online.
It’s clear that colleges are taking violation of the rules seriously. As an adult, your student is responsible for following the rules and guidelines to protect their own health and safety and to help control the spread of the virus on their campus and in the larger community.