Pity the poor colleges and universities. If they can't entice students to return to campus in the next few weeks, they may face a financial armageddon. For many students, a gap year is looking pretty good right now. But colleges and universities have to somehow navigate the gap between "I'm not writing huge checks and taking out tons of loans just to cyber school" and "I am not ready to risk me life just to hang out on campus."
Penn State appears poised to take a fairly aggressive approach. Their plan calls for campus to open for in-person classes, though after the Thanksgiving break, students will stay out and finish the semester (including finals) virtually.
Also, students have to sign a pledge.
The pledge has attracted some attention for being a sort of waiver, a "if I get Covid it's not Penn State's fault," sort of liability shield. And that's certainly part of it-- "I assume any and all risk of exposure to COVID-19 that may result from attending Penn State" plus acknowledging that such exposure could result in injury, illness, disability or death.
What's more striking is how strictly the university demands student follow a tight set of protocols. If you are wondering what a university looks like when they are trying to take control of the pandemic in ways beyond what we've seen from, say, elected government officials, here it is.
* Students must self-quarantine for seven days before coming to campus.
* Students must agree to be tested by the university at any time.
* They must fully and "candidly" cooperate with any contact tracing (this is turning out to be a problem in some places).
* Face coverings in buildings at all time and outside when distancing isn't possible.
* Observe distancing requirements in any on-campus or off-campus settings.
* If the student tests positive, they must isolate and "explicitly follow the University's instructions."
* Follow good hand hygiene.
The actual pledging part involves lots of acknowledgement of the situation and the student's personal responsibility for helping to keep Covid-19 at bay.
If, at any time, I am unable or unwilling to sustain these commitments to my fellow students and our community, I shall remove myself from the campus and complete the semester remotely.
Consequences for refusing to live by these rules on campus include suspension and expulsion. Penn State is apparently intent on signalling that they mean business; nobody in Happy Valley is saying, "Yes, well, masks are a personal choice." Despite the forcefulness, the document (which students must virtually sign before returning) does feel a bit sad and not-entirely-hopeful. The introductory paragraph notes that "Our return is tenuous and could be brief."
The whole thing is an interesting stance for an institution that has had long-standing problems in addressing its hard-drinking culture.
Penn State is supposed to start up again at the end of the month. We'll see how well a message of responsibility, accountability and "you'd better by God follow the rules" actually plays out, and if there are any lessons for other schools.