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‘Acknowledgement of risk’: the first paper facing many college students in covid era

When it comes to mitigating the spread of covid-19 on campus, college administrators have been consistent: it all comes down to student behavior, they say.

“We’ve been communicating our expectations all summer to students,” Pitt Dean Kenyon Bonner said during a Monday news conference.

College students everywhere are being asked to shoulder some of the responsibility for preventing the spread of covid-19. Many institutions have already cracked down on students flouting social distance rules, attending parties or violating no-visitor policies. And at Pitt and other universities, the burden started early with the “acknowledgement of risk” form.

While some students and scholars fear the document raises questions about a university’s preparedness in virus prevention, placing the bulk of responsibility on young adults, others see them as practical and necessary to protect everyone involved.

“Each of us has a role to play in keeping our community as healthy as possible,” said Kevin Zwick, a spokesman for Pitt. “Even with all of the measures the university is taking — and everything our faculty, staff and students are doing to help keep all of us safe — the impact of the pandemic on campus operations will be significant and there are risks associated with voluntary return to campus. Recognizing the importance of students understanding these risks prior to resuming on-campus activity, the university has required students to complete a Return to Campus Student Acknowledgement.”

Olivia Enders, a graduate researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, said she found the language of Pitt’s risk acknowledgment waiver “jarring.”

When she opened her email one morning in early August, the Pitt Community Compact popped up, followed by a “Return to Campus acknowledgment.”

Students must agree to new rules such as face coverings and hand washing, acknowledge that “the university cannot limit all potential vectors” of infection, and agree that they are returning to the university “assuming the risk” of exposure to covid-19, according to the acknowledgment. Enders said they were told to agree to the acknowledgment by Aug. 23 or they would lose access to their university email and other IT services.

Enders said she found no issue with the compact, which was written with the help of student leaders and stressed a community mentality.

“The issue I really had was with the section that centered around ‘I assume all of the risks voluntarily,’” she said.

Administrators and liability experts argue the acknowledgments are necessary to increase awareness and emphasize the communal responsibilities of following public health orders. Universities are not alone in the use of these documents — businesses are using waivers and acknowledgments of risk as well, said attorney Jim Southworth, a principal of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Southworth said the documents are normally an important step to make sure patrons are informed of the threats to safety that could arise in a public place, he said. Acknowledgments of risk differ from waivers in that they don’t ban a person from bringing claims against a business — they are meant to be more of a mutual agreement.

But in a university setting, the agreements can be off-putting to students. Some legal scholars argue they allow universities to “lower their obligation” to ensure a safe environment.

“It doesn’t matter whether you call a document like this a waiver, a consent form, an acknowledgment of risk,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “Those are just different labels for a document that will provide a basis for the university to argue that students voluntarily encountered the risk of catching covid-19 on reopened campuses.”

Feldman last week criticized Penn State’s acknowledgment form in an investigation from Spotlight PA, and authored an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in June about the liability risks unique to college campuses amid the pandemic. She argued risk acknowledgments suggest “there’s no way to (reopen) without people risking dying.”

“I think students are caught unawares because they’re not used to thinking they have to bargain over each access to university infrastructure,” Feldman said.

Enders said she was troubled by the way Pitt’s acknowledgment was presented.

“The presentation of it just felt really coercive,” she said. “Holding your email hostage feels like, to a lot of students, that you didn’t really have a choice.”

By Aug. 24, she hadn’t agreed to the terms of the acknowledgment. , but still had access to her email.

While the acknowledgment is required to return to campus, Zwick said students are not waiving any of their rights.

“This document is not a waiver of liability,” he said. “Students are not being asked to give up their right to sue the university or any other legal right. Instead, students are being asked to acknowledge and agree that they understand the risks and the behaviors they must exhibit to help minimize those risks.”

Other schools in the area are also having students agree to new Codes of Conduct or behavior compacts. At Duquesne University, students are asked to agree to a pledge to abide by health and safety restrictions in the university’s mobile app, but aren’t required to complete a waiver or acknowledgement of risk. Point Park University students are asked to agree to a “Pioneer Pledge” and a resident student acknowledgment. Carnegie Mellon students have the “Tartan Responsibility.”

University leaders across the country and locally have emphasized the idea that student behavior will be the top factor in preventing coronavirus on and off campus.

“We have worked very, very hard to convey to our students: ‘Look. It’s all about mask and distance,’” John Williams, director of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office said Monday. During the news conference, Williams explained how the university is gathering data on covid-19 cases and using a detailed dashboard to track its spread. But, he said, “Behavior is much more important than testing.”

Pitt’s administration had fielded complaints over the weekend about students partying, Bonner said, just days after he issued a letter warning students that their behavior is “threatening a successful fall term for all of us.”

Bonner said nine fraternities and sororities are currently facing interim sanctions, as well as “more than a handful of students.” Those students, pending their conduct hearings, are facing restrictions from university facilities or possible removal from residence halls.

For the most part, administrators say, students are eager to comply with new rules — at Monday’s press conference, Bonner said the majority of Pitt students are already wearing masks regularly and refraining from large gatherings. Most of the reports about “covid concerns,” Bonner said, are coming from other students, members of the community or staff in residence halls.

The strict rules are no surprise to Casey Collins, 18, a finance student whose freshman year is not at all like he would have imagined. He’s in a double room with no roommate, his interactions with classmates mostly limited to those in his “pod.” In some ways it feels like part of his college experience is “kind of being taken away,” he said.

But in the grand scheme of things he doesn’t mind, and he wasn’t bothered by the acknowledgment or with the restrictions, or with Bonner’s warning to students. He said it felt like a “privilege” to be on campus at all — he didn’t want it to be taken away.

“I think it’s important in this time,” he said, “and the main idea is to keep everyone safe.”

Bonner said if students don’t take don’t comply with restrictions, they will affect the university’s ability to host any in-person learning or activities.

“If students are not taking this seriously and we have infections across campus, that will impact what our operating postures are,” he said. “Everything is really connected and important.”

Teghan Simonton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Teghan at 724-226-4680, tsimonton@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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