‘Students are going to be responsible for policing themselves’

JMU’s quad is largely empty the week before classes are set to resume on Aug. 26.

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

With JMU classes scheduled to start Aug. 26, the university has published reams of new guidelines about masks and apps and quarantining that all depend on one thing in order for the campus to remain open: students, faculty and staff self-policing each other. 

In its guidelines and communications with students and employees, the university has emphasized that masks must be worn at all times while in any university buildings. In fact, the university’s vice president of Student Affairs Tim Miller has said in a video that wearing masks is the new “holding doors” on campus, which means it’s the new way of looking out for other Dukes. 

In addition to the mask mandate and strict limits on the number of occupants in classrooms in order to adhere to state social distancing rules, students and university employees must complete daily wellness quizzes on an app before coming to campus. And students are supposed to limit social gatherings to 10 people.  

Plus, JMU has spent about $700,000 on personal protective equipment and other virus-protection efforts, including disinfectants, plexiglass, face masks and shields for faculty and staff, said JMU’s Assistant Director of Media Relations Mary-Hope Vass in a statement. 

But when it comes to enforcing those rules and social distancing guidelines on and off campus, that’s where the university is placing its trust in the students, said Caitlyn Read, the university’s spokeswoman. 

“Students are going to be responsible for policing themselves,” Read said. “We need students to make really good decisions, recognizing the decisions they make are not only going to impact them, they’re going to impact their peers, their faculty, the community at large and could potentially put them in a situation where we again have to pivot to online learning.”

Even though JMU will begin freshman move-in Friday and countless upperclassmen have journeyed back to Harrisonburg, many have taken to social media to express their dissatisfaction with how the university is handling itself amid COVID-19. 

While many students are eager to return to campus after moving to all online courses for the second half of the spring 2020 semester, some aren’t interested in taking any more hybrid or online courses. And still others are skeptical about how the university will be able to prevent outbreaks.

One JMU student, Siddhant Nalawade, who is a member of a fraternity, told The Citizen that he’s disappointed in how “hypocritical” the university is being with social gathering guidelines and self-policing. 

“It just does seem like a little hypocritical and almost unrealistic to expect that of your students,” Nalawade said. “I think it’s also … hypocritical to limit off- and on-campus gatherings to like 10 people when … there’s like 30 people in [one of my] classes.”

Nalawade has taken the initiative in his fraternity to use funds to purchase temperature guns to monitor the small events they do host throughout the semester. But he said one of his main concerns — health-wise — is all the freshmen who will live on campus. 

“I remember my freshman year, if one person got sick in my section, the whole section came down with it,” Nalawade said. 

Another student went as far as calling the university “irresponsible and selfish” on Twitter because of its decision to host a mixture of in-person and hybrid classes as of Aug. 17. 

With the concept of peer policing comes the app that students will complete their daily wellness quizzes — LiveSafe. While the university has used LiveSafe in the past for students to make anonymous tips to the JMU Police Department, this will be the first semester the app will be used to keep track of student health data. 

Before going to class, or even stepping foot on campus or outside of a dorm room, students must complete these daily health screenings, according to JMU. The quiz features five basic questions, starting with whether the person is a student or employee and to type in their email address. Then it asks: 

  • Whether or not the individual has a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher; 
  • Whether the person had any other COVID-related symptoms, such as “cough, trouble breathing/feeling short of breath, chills, significant body aches, unusual headache, loss of the ability to smell or taste, sore throat”; 
  • And whether a medical professional has told the person to self-isolate in the last 14 days. 

The app then deciphers the information and indicates whether the person is OK to go on campus, informing the student or employee with an email containing a green check-mark if they’re clear to come in. LiveSafe then sends the information to a third party company that aggregates the data. 

Signs on classroom doors tell students what they can and cannot do in the age of COVID-19.

On top of completing these daily screenings, JMU students, faculty or staff can use the app to make anonymous tips if they see people aren’t obeying COVID-related policies. Once a tip is submitted, the JMU police will be notified and on a case by case basis will begin an investigation into the matter. 

“It’s going to be very much on a case-by-case basis based on the severity of whatever the violation is,” Read said. “Based on the situation, JMU PD could involve a number of players, including University Affairs.”

JMU’s academic affairs policy No. 12 was updated in June to address any COVID-related class disruptions. The policy says it will “eliminate conduct” in the classroom that takes away from the learning environment and “deal with a disruptive student” by potentially creating “sanctions on students who engage in behavior disruptive to the learning process.”

Despite the summer of protests calling to defund the police and many coming forward about their upsetting experiences with law enforcement, Read said the relationship with JMUPD and the student body is strong. 

“JMU PD is here to help our students,” Read said. “They’re out there fighting for the safety of our students.” 

While JMU has made a general statement about what it will take for classes to be moved online, it hasn’t revealed any specific boxes that would need to be checked for it to happen. After weeks of requesting for interviews, The Citizen was emailed a statement and sent several of the documents the university has published online instead of making available for interviews any high-level administrators who are making those decisions. 

JMU President Jonathan Alger did touch on the possibility of having to shift online in an Aug. 11 message to students, faculty and staff. 

“If we do have to adjust our current plans because of the pandemic’s continued advance, several factors will inform our decision-making process,” he wrote. 

Those included: changes in the governor’s orders, a reduction in on-campus testing resources, a lack of local hospital capacity, reaching capacity of space for on-campus isolation/quarantining, and generically “an increase in positive COVID-19 cases within our community,” though Alger didn’t indicate whether there was a certain number. 

This comes as the University of North Carolina announced Monday it would shift to remote learning starting Wednesday, Aug. 19, after being open only a week. Since the semester began Aug. 10, the university has had 177 students placed in isolation and another 349 be quarantined as the result of outbreaks, according to UNC

Still, JMU is forging ahead as more students return to Harrisonburg this week. 

“We have been and will continue partnering with city and county leaders to stay abreast of what is happening within our community,” Alger said in his Aug. 11 statement. “My deepest gratitude goes to the faculty, staff and community for entrusting JMU to handle this situation safely. I am grateful for the teamwork and thoughtfulness of everyone.”

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