As the fall semester and classes have picked up steam, so too have the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in the Texas A&M community.
At the time of publication, there are 1,202 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff. The week ending on Sept. 5 had the highest positivity rate of those tested for the coronavirus outside of the week ending on Aug. 22.
While A&M may have more cases than most colleges due to its large student body, there have been several reports on social media sites such as Twitter and Reddit accusing fellow students of flouting the safety policies laid out by the university to control the spread of COVID-19. These accusations include students throwing parties off-campus, not wearing masks and not maintaining proper social distancing.
Dean of Student Life Anne Reber said in an email to The Battalion that for a first-time offense there is a reading or writing educational component for breaking COVID-19 guidelines. This component means that students who violate guidelines may have to read or write a paper on how their actions go against A&M’s core values. —Reber said this approach is meant to reinforce and contribute to students’ growth.
“While we do have disciplinary consequences for violations, there will almost always be an educational component as well,” Reber said. “We view our student conduct process as an [educational] experience that will contribute to growth in personal understanding of one’s responsibilities.”
Telecommunication media studies senior Elizabeth Barnes said the university should implement stricter rules and punishments if they want students to adhere to the guidelines.
“I hate to say it, however the punishment needs to impact them either academically or socially,” Barnes said. “By threatening students caught breaking guidelines with academic probation or organization probation, I think the adherence would be taken more seriously.”
Student Affairs Director of Marketing and Communications Sondra White, Class of 1987, said despite a general education component for first-time offenses, punishments are decided on a case-by-case basis. For example, she said students who break COVID-19 guidelines by throwing parties in their dorm room risk severe punishment, even for a first-time offense.
“[The university is] going to take that case of that individual student,” White said. “They will treat it as an individual and different case than if someone did something small, say like not wearing a mask indoors."
Associate Director of Student Affairs Kristen Harrell said in a statement to The Battalion that the reason for taking a case-by-case approach in terms of punishments is because of the different nature of each case.
“Each situation is different and needs to be evaluated for the specific facts,” Harrell said. “Some situations may require a formal investigation to more fully examine a situation.”
Harrell said the university is also working in tandem with local police departments to handle accusations of students breaking COVID-19 guidelines off-campus.
“University officials have had conversations with both the College Station and Bryan police departments regarding community concerns,” Harrell said. “Law enforcement [has] been offered the same opportunity to provide information to the Student Conduct Office as they are able within the confines of their work.”
Despite this, many parties have been thrown on and off campus with no adherence to COVID-19 guidelines, Barnes said.
“I personally know people who have thrown parties but allowed people attending to not wear masks,” Barnes said. “On campus, people tend to follow guidelines more than when they are off.”
Harrell said consistently breaking COVID-19 guidelines will open up the possibility of heavy sanctions for those students.
“If a student were to engage in ongoing, egregious disregard for safety expectations, there is a possibility that that individual could be suspended, expelled, and/or removed from on-campus housing,” Harrell said.
Reber said implementing these punishments is possible because of A&M rules that allow the university to sanction students who take actions against university standards regardless of where it occurred.
“The Student Rules allow for the university to seek off-campus jurisdiction to investigate and adjudicate violations of our rules and policies even if the behavior occurred off-campus,” Reber said.
With the COVID-19 guidelines put in place, the university needs to identify specific organizations and students to sanction them, Harrell said.
“We have already begun formal action with both individuals and organizations,” Harrell said. “We will continue to take action on reports where we can specifically identify students or [organizations].”
Because of this, Harrell said the university needs students, faculty and staff to come forward if they see any instances of individual students breaking the COVID-19 guidelines.
“Community members who observe students or organizations failing to follow COVID-19 policies may submit a report,” Harrell said. “It is important to know that when individual students or organizations are not identified in the report, limited or no action can be taken.”
Barnes said she believes the reason cases have risen in Brazos county is because of students’ desires to go back to normal outweighing the fear of COVID-19.
“When students got back to College Station, the first thing they wanted to do was see their friends they haven’t seen since March,” Barnes said. “That urge to see our friends paired with the low mortality rate for young people created the perfect recipe for an outbreak.”
Reber said despite some students not adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines, the university is not experiencing anything out of the ordinary from other schools across the country.
“[In] looking at schools across the country, we are not experiencing anything different than others, and I would say that we are actually doing better than most,” Reber said.
Even with all the university has done to protect students, faculty and staff, Barnes said it is still difficult for students to completely focus on their school work.
“I definitely found it difficult to focus on school during this pandemic,” Barnes said. “Things that we took for granted before corona have now been permanently altered without a clear vision of how we can safely return to normality. It is unsettling at the very least and terrifying to live in.”