Snitches Get Stitches: Breaking the Rules in the Time of COVID

Disclaimer: This article references confusion over a remark made by President Monaco in a town hall for the Somerville and Medford communities that gatherings of 40 or more people would result in suspension, in contrast to the University policy prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. However, President Monaco made this statement in exaggeration, not as a fact, and the 10-person rule was displayed on slides during the meeting.

Looking around the Tufts campus, what can students see? Loose circles of students sharing meals on the Prez Lawn; blue markers outlining the sidewalks near dining halls; leaves beginning to fall onto the still-green grass; white signs reminding students to wear a mask and wipe down surfaces before leaving; or perhaps the Jumbo statue, grand as ever, also doing his part to stop the spread with his own mask. Unlike other schools, you likely won’t see frat houses overflowing with students, tailgates with no masks in sight, or even a crowded slip-and-slide down the side of a hill

Relative to other universities, Tufts has been successful in keeping its number of COVID-19 cases low among students and faculty. Several universities, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, have been forced to move to exclusively virtual classes due to high transmission rates of COVID-19, particularly because of large parties and gatherings. Several universities, especially large state schools, have reported over 1,000 positive COVID-19 cases within a month of beginning classes. Meanwhile, almost a month since out-of-region move-in began, Tufts has kept positive cases firmly in the double digits, with only 0.06% of tests coming back positive as of September 22.

For now, morale has stayed high and cases have stayed low, with students generally feeling secure in the strength of Tufts’ reopening plans. A sophomore RA, under the pseudonym RA 1, said, “I’m feeling really optimistic about [Tufts’s reopening plan], especially compared to other schools…I really like Tufts’ reopening plan and I think they’ve thought it out very well.” Tufts has yet to make the news for large parties or blatant disregard of CDC guidelines. However, students’ following COVID guidelines is not and was never going to be perfect—so what happens when they do break the rules?

Official policies for disciplinary action, should students break COVID guidelines, have been consistently vague. In the Fall 2020 Campus Guide, where Tufts first outlined its reopening plans for the fall semester, the phrase “disciplinary action” is mentioned three times; however, the specific “action” is never stated. At Tufts, “disciplinary action” can range anywhere from an initial meeting to suspension from campus without a tuition refund. The official Tufts COVID-19 website also has little information about consequences for breaking university and state COVID guidelines, only stating that staff who refuse to be tested could “be subject to corrective action up to and including suspension and discharge.”

Several universities have handed out strict punishments against students who have attended or thrown large gatherings. Northeastern University recently suspended 11 students without a tuition refund for hosting a gathering of 11 students, just over the allowed 10 people. Boston University, with regular testing and only four cases in the past week, sent an email from the dean of students that said, “If you host or attend a large off-campus or on-campus gathering, social, or party, you will be suspended from Boston University.” Individual cases of violating university policy are kept confidential, but Tufts has not yet had a newsworthy incident or punishment of students for breaking COVID guidelines. 

Based on official university communications, there does not appear to be any clear outline as to what consequences students can expect to face should they break university guidelines. While the lack of strict protocol does allow for Tufts to consider policy violations on a case-by-case basis, there also is no standard that Tufts is obligated to uphold when it comes to disciplinary action. RA 1 shared that “there’s not really any punishment as far as I have seen. I have seen the same people not wearing masks [or] social distancing… Even in casual settings, on or around campus, it’s always intervened by a student… Right now it seems like there’s a lot of rules and regulations, but no enforcement and no follow through.”

There have also been instances where university statements have run directly counter to local COVID-19 regulations. During a recent town hall aimed at the Somerville and Medford communities, President Tony Monaco promised consequences for students who do not follow university guidelines. He specifically mentioned that students “hosting a 40 or more person gathering could result in suspension from the university.” Another RA who has chosen to remain anonymous, RA 2, commented on this statement over email, and said, “Somerville and Medford have said 10 people is the limit, so I am frustrated by the lack of transparency around this decision that is in direct contrast to our host towns. Also, forty people is more than enough to cause an outbreak, so why is the number so high? And why would President Monaco vocalize this number, giving off the idea to students that large social gatherings are permissible and that they may not have harsh consequences?” 

However, a statement from Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarríbar stated that “due to increased public health risks, any student who hosts a social gathering of more than 10 people, whether on or off campus, will…face suspension and expulsion.” While both Dean Lizarríbar and President Monaco expressed that students should expect harsh consequences should they hold large gatherings, there are inconsistencies in university statements on what size gatherings will warrant suspension and expulsion.

Because of their role as the first responders to COVID-19 violations, RAs often get a front-row seat when students fail to follow the rules because they live with students in university housing and are almost always the first reporters of COVID-19 guideline violations. They are responsible for upholding university policies, usually in regard to substance use and noise. This semester, with new rules dictating everything from where students may eat to who they may have in their rooms, the amount of policies that RAs must uphold has drastically increased. 

Aviva Michaeli, an RA for the Jewish Cultural House, said, “Freshman FYAs [First-Year Assistants, now RAs for first-years] used to be compensated in both meal plan and housing, and CDAs [Community Development Assistants, now RAs for returning students] were paid differently…depending on perceived responsibility.” This year, however, RAs for students of all years are receiving pay in the form of housing. For RAs of first-years, this means that they are compensated less, despite having a large number of university guidelines to uphold. This year, RAs are responsible for enforcing rules such as wearing a mask outside of one’s dorm room, communicating who is in what residential cohort, and documenting incidents of COVID-19 policy violation. 

Not only is the RA job more dangerous due to the higher chance of being exposed to COVID-19, but RAs often have to make snap decisions about how to escalate when students refuse to break up a party. These decisions can be especially difficult when RAs are advised to involve Tufts University Police Department. Some students commented that TUPD, when present, has not been helpful in enforcing COVID-19 guidelines. RA 3 commented, “I’ve also seen TUPD not wearing masks, so they’re not helping with COVID policies. They’re the ones breaking COVID policies.”

With student organizations such as Tufts for Black Lives or even the Tufts Community Union encouraging Tufts to disarm or disband TUPD, it is increasingly clear that many Tufts students feel uncomfortable with the police presence on campus. Students, including RAs, may fear for their fellow students’ safety should armed police become involved, discouraging them from contacting police to handle COVID-19 policy violations.

Recently, a small group of RAs, not on duty and socially distanced, heard a large gathering somewhere near the backyard of the special interest house they were in. The RAs decided to call the Assistant Residential Life Coordinator (ARLC) on duty, a graduate student who is responsible for overseeing a specific residential neighborhood and its RAs. RA 4 said, “We called the ARLC on duty, who told us that because the house was just off-campus, the only thing we could do was call TUPD…I didn’t know what was more dangerous…spreading the virus, or getting armed police involved, potentially putting students of color in danger. We decided to not call the cops and just ignore the noise as best we could.” RA 1 discussed how RAs “deserve so much more credit than what they’re getting,” given that they often have to make the difficult choice of either involving armed police or allowing dangerously large gatherings.

While Tufts’ reopening plan has stood out from those of other universities, without a consistent outline of consequences for breaking COVID-19 regulations, RA 1 described a lack of trust in the system: “I have very little faith in how Tufts is disciplining students…there’s no consequences for students not following the rules.” Ultimately, as RA 1 said, “[Tufts’s reopening plan] is all on the honor system, it’s all on bystander intervention, which I think is no way to have a [COVID-19 prevention and mitigation] plan.”