In an effort to stem the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) on campus, universities throughout America are asking students to report peers who they suspect to be infected. Other systems also ask students to file reports if they think there are people who aren’t following COVID-19 prevention guidelines.
While these programs mean well, enforcing them might have unfortunate implications, especially if some students abuse the system. Experts have already spoken up about the implications of these systems meant to monitor potential coronavirus cases and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Who wants to join the “coronavirus police?”
At the University of Miami (UM), a system allows students to anonymously report any “concerns about unsafe behaviors” of their peers. The reports will then be reviewed by university administrators who will contact the student of concern by the next business day to provide assistance before any student “reaches a crisis level.”
Meanwhile, UM faculty, staff and administrators are encouraged to directly contact the school authorities for suspected cases. As a safeguard, UM’s “Report a Concern” website warns that anyone providing false information “may be subject to University disciplinary action.”
At Texas A&M University (TAMU), faculty members and administrators can use a similar system to file a report if they think someone else on campus has been infected with the coronavirus.
At Tulane University, students and other university members are encouraged to speak up about “problematic behavior” related to COVID-19. Depending on the incident being reported, students can also call the university police.
On the reporting page announcement, Erica Woodly, Tulane Dean of Students, called on students to keep an eye out for these so-called incidents. She wrote, “Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?”
Meanwhile, Yale University tells students to “make reports concerning COVID-19” to the university hotline.
Concern or unnecessary policing?
At the University of North Georgia (UNG), students can use a “COVID-19 Concern for Others Form.” This system, however, has been subject to backlash.
Soon after the system was announced, concerned members of the Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) sent a letter to the university, claiming that the UNG’s form “may violate students’ right to privacy and could possibly censor speech.”
The SLF letter acknowledged that while colleges have a duty to protect student health and safety, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic affecting most of the country, students’ First Amendment rights remain unchanged. The SLF letter noted that despite the pandemic, colleges and universities “cannot engage in viewpoint or content-based discrimination, cannot enact vague and overbroad policies, and cannot chill student expression.”
The SLF brought up several ways that the UNG “COVID-19 Concern for Others Form” can be abused:
- Students who want to prevent a controversial speaker from visiting campus can use the form to do so.
- The form can be used to stop a student organization from encouraging others to join their cause if someone reports members of the organization as symptomatic.
While these scenarios are only examples, the SLF letter emphasized that without stricter reporting guidelines and limits, similar events could be quickly ended just by using the form. According to the SLF, the form could also violate students’ Fourth Amendment rights by forcing students to get tested for coronavirus even without cause.
As the Fourth Amendment states, “individuals cannot be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Involving students in contact tracing
Aside from asking students and staff alike to report anyone who could have been exposed to coronavirus, some universities have started various student volunteer programs to reduce the spread of the virus.
At Columbia University, a “Student Ambassador” program allows students to a “peer leader” and “expert” on “COVID-19 prevention, the Columbia Community Health Compact and resources for students.”
Campuses are even turning to technology to keep a closer eye on students. In a move reminiscent of 1984’s Big Brother, the University of Denver requires all students to install an application on their smartphones that will then track their location to expedite contact tracing efforts. (Related: Massive backlash forces Michigan university to back down from enforcing medical device to monitor coronavirus symptoms.)
But even though many universities in the country readily encourage students to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by reporting their peers, two Ivy League academics advised universities that asking students to join “the coronavirus police” isn’t a good move.
Both Karen Levy, an assistant professor at Cornell University and Lauren Kilgour, a doctoral candidate at Cornell, acknowledge that involving students in COVID-19 prevention “makes sense.”
However, the systems currently being enforced may not be as effective as initially hoped. They can also negatively the students who are put “in very tough positions.”
While some students find it easy to report suspected cases of COVID-19, others may find it hard to report their friends and possibly subject them to harsh penalties. Students may also fear being socially ostracized if they are revealed to have snitched on their peers.
Students could eventually be burdened by the added responsibility of helping prevent the spread of coronavirus and the potential personal costs of reporting their fellow students.
And while these systems can help keep campuses safe, the anonymity they provide can also be abused. The forms can be used to get revenge on other students or to fuel competition between various student organizations.
Visit Pandemic.news for more information about how universities are handling the coronavirus pandemic.