By Jessica Kronzer, contributor
Even as guidelines have adjusted to recommend three feet of distance between students in K-12 schools and a growing number of students receive vaccines, JMU continues to enforce on- and off-campus COVID-19 rules that were part of a “Stop the Spread” contract all students had to sign before returning to campus last fall.
Among its requirements was quarantining before arrival on campus, using the LiveSafe App health screening survey, not hosting or attending gatherings with more than 10 people, along with more familiar guidelines like wearing masks and physical distancing. A requirement added in the spring required on-campus students to be tested for Covid-19 before moving back into their dorms.
According to university spokesperson Mary-Hope Vass, out of 846 allegations, more than 700 students have been found guilty of violating the agreement, with 21 receiving suspensions for their behavior. Most of those suspended were found to have hosted large gatherings in violation of the agreement.
Vice-President of Student Affairs Tim Miller said the university is receiving fewer reports of public health protocol violations than in the fall, when a surge of positive tests soon after the semester began forced the university to suspend class for several weeks. Miller attributed a declining trend in reported violations to several factors, including colder weather, a later-than-usual start to the semester and changing attitudes among the student body.
“I do think that there’s been a lot of students that have shifted their sort of approach and their attitude about the virus and being careful,” Miller said.
Even before the pandemic, Miller went on police ride-alongs to understand the experience for both officers and students. During the pandemic, he has done several ride-alongs with police or fire and rescue squads.
“I can’t really be vice-president of student affairs if I only see the students 9-to-5,” Miller said. “I think part of student life is what happens after-hours. I also wanted to show my support to our police and our fire for everything they do to keep our students safe and let them know that I’m willing to be out there with them.”
Miller found that students who were confronted for large gatherings were typically polite when interacting with police while their parties were getting broken up. This sometimes happens in response to possible violations reported on the LiveSafe app, which all students are required to use to answer health screening questions.
“Those reports go to the police directly, they see them in real time,” Miller said “Depending on what they see, if it’s actionable, then they will address it in the moment … It all really comes down to what are the police able to identify and find and let us know about.”
Miller explained that while local law enforcement sees LiveSafe reports immediately, JMU often receives those reports on Monday and if there isn’t a police report it is hard to act on them. While the police are likely to focus on reports that break up indoor gatherings of 50 or more people, per Virginia Department of Health Guidelines, JMU has limited its students to gatherings of no more than 10 people.
Most of the violations reported on the app are minor, and more likely to receive restorative or education-based punishments or education than a suspension. Students who are reported for breaking the agreement receive notification from the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP). Just like with any OSARP case, students are afforded certain rights. After meeting with a case administrator to discuss the report, Vass said OSARP makes a decision based on “a preponderance of the evidence regarding the non-compliance violation.”
In some cases, clubs and organizations could also held responsible for breaking guidelines and subject to a disciplinary process. Depending on what the organization is, the Center for Multicultural Student Services, Student Life, or UREC may work with OSARP in determining an outcome.
Finally, Vass said that some students ignoring guidelines could be put on an interim suspension status. Students put on this status are banned from campus and attending classes until their case is appealed, if they wish to appeal it. (An exact number of students who have received an interim suspension is not available.)
During his interview with The Citizen, Miller emphasized that over 19,000 students haven’t violated the Stop the Spread agreement.
“The reality is that most of our students are doing the right thing,” Miller said.
Given that JMU has no way to validate if students have been vaccinated, Miller said that guidelines will not be adjusted for students who are vaccinated. While the university will not require students to be vaccinated to return to campus in the fall, many of the daily COVID-19 update emails to JMU students have encouraged students to do so.
What exactly next fall’s return to campus will look like remains undecided, and much of it depends on guidance the university receives from the state. Still, the administration is cautiously optimistic that it will begin feeling more familiar.
“I’m really looking forward to the fall semester feeling more normal for students as far as their lives and how they interact with each other,” Miller said as he looked out his office window at JMU’s quad. “Even with these limitations, we can still enjoy each other and enjoy our time here together. I’m hoping that everyone understands that there’s a little bit more sacrifice.”
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