I have to admit that I’m shocked at the bad press colleges and universities are getting for setting high expectations for COVID-safe student behavior, holding students accountable for their actions, and frankly attributing negative repercussions to disregard for guidelines whenever a connection can be drawn. For the past few days, institutions have drawn fire for all of the above, and the hottest takes have even suggested that closures plus “student blaming” has been the strategy all along. Some seem to think that colleges have planned to communicate impossible standards, expect impossible levels of compliance, and then shut down when those standards couldn’t be honored. The argument from some seems to be that we can’t expect young adults to distance, wear masks, and not congregate in large numbers in order to preserve opportunities to learn together in person and keep more people healthy and alive.
I don’t buy it.
I don’t buy that early closure and student-blaming was the game-plan for institutions. More basically, I don’t buy the premises that colleges are asking the impossible, that young adults can’t be expected to act responsibly for the sake of greater goods like the educational enterprise or community wellbeing, even in high-stakes situations, or that institutions are unreasonable to hold students accountable for irresponsible behavior.
Let’s take each of these ideas separately.
Are colleges setting impossible standards? Hardly. Institutions are asking young adults who choose to be on-campus for in-person instruction to keep their distance, wear face-coverings, and avoid congregating in large groups. They may even have to use some one-way hallways or wait in longer lines for lower-capacity restrooms. All of these things are unusual, but they are decidedly possible and arguably easy. Are there other things that are difficult about this semester? Yes. Are these requirements among those difficult things? No.
Can we expect young adults to act responsibly or even follow rules they don’t agree with or fully understand for the sake of the greater good? Yes. We expect young adults to comply with standards in high-stakes situations all. the. time. The extreme example, of course, is what we expect of young adults serving in the military and what’s at stake in their meeting the standards set for them. But we don’t need the extreme non-higher education examples when we have good examples in higher education. We expect far more demanding things from students in all sorts of settings, especially in experiential education. Conducting lab experiments just right is more demanding, and getting lab experiments wrong can have serious consequences in some cases. Even the climbing wall requires students to meet more stringent standards. And off-campus programs? I’ve supervised students in experiential programs where a wrong step could cost a life (think deadly snakes, crocodiles, sharks), where a bad decision could compromise the education experience for everyone, where community wellbeing both among and beyond students depends on individual watchfulness, where there’s somewhere between little and no room for error. Every single one of those programs has required students to do more difficult things than distance, wear masks, avoid congregating in large numbers, and use one-way hallways, and the stakes have often been quite high. If we can’t reasonably require COVID precautions, even for weeks at a time, there are a lot of other, and more demanding, learning experiences we should probably stop offering to students.
Finally, are institutions unreasonable to hold students accountable if they don’t comply? No. The standards are not impossible, the stakes are high, and the students signed up for these requirements. Many, perhaps most, institutions are requiring students to sign a COVID agreement or compact – my own institution requires them to sign a covenant – agreeing to comply with these rules. In other words, the students who’ve shown up have pledged to comply. They’ve pledged to set both community health and sustaining this unusual educational experience as long as possible ahead of their preference for two-way hallways, partying, or masklessness. Students who wittingly engage in risky behavior should be sent home. (Again, the analogy to experiential education works. I’ve had to send home, or threaten to send students home, from experiential education programs for putting others at risk and compromising the long-term integrity of the educational experience for others.)
Now, does any of this mean that every college should have opened back up for in-person education? No – that’s a different question that should probably be answered differently by different institutions. Does it mean that college and university environments would be COVID-free if students would just comply? No – that would be impossible. Might we still see institutions close down in-person education and go online because of outbreaks? Quite possibly. I’m not saying that student compliance would lead to perfect semesters. But I am saying that it is entirely reasonable to set standards, to expect compliance, and to hold students accountable if they wittingly engage in risky behavior that jeopardizes the health, lives, or learning experiences of others.