The University of Alabama was rewarded this week by The Princeton Review as the No. 1 party school in the country, which might be seen a badge of honor in more cavalier times but certainly not during a pandemic.
Unfortunately, what messaging the university has sent over the past few months regarding safety has been ignored by large numbers of students who have gathered en masse without masks at areas such as The Strip and in bars in Tuscaloosa that stay open until 11 p.m.
Photos of the gatherings have filtered through social media, prompting this response from Bama Athletic Director Greg Byrne, meant to hit home with Crimson Tide revelers: “Who wants college sports this fall? Obviously not these people.”
In Alabama, football is king. When the university decided to ban tailgating and reduce capacity at its football games to 20%, it was a big blow to those who gather every Saturday. It’s possible that strict enforcement measures will sink in.
Nothing else has seemed to stave off the inevitable. Students who want to party will party, regardless of codes of conduct – at Alabama and others known for their soirees, such as Penn State, the University of Connecticut and Syracuse. Or at Notre Dame, which has had to move all of its classes online. Or at Alabama’s rival, Auburn University, which had a small outbreak earlier this week in a residence hall and fraternity.
“If you don’t want to protect yourself and you don’t want to protect your family and you don’t want to protect your friends and thousands of jobs, maybe, just maybe, you would want to protect football season so we can have it this fall,” Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said.
From desperate pleas to more direct threats of suspensions and further penalties, universities are fighting to get their messages through to some students. At many of the top party schools, the challenges are even greater, especially when events happen at night and off campus, at apartments or at fraternities and sororities.
So what are the next steps a university can take when that initial messaging fails?
Here’s how four schools that rank high on Princeton’s party list are addressing and trying to curtail social celebrations while still getting out messages on COVID-19 safety:
Reports of gatherings during the pandemic have been a low point for the No. 3 party school (it was No. 1 last year), so much so that the school has been forced to mete out a number of suspensions, including 23 on Thursday to those who violated university and state mandates by gathering at a large party.
Like many colleges and universities, Syracuse early on delivered strong messages to students and through its website imploring social distancing and mask wearing. But as some students have ignored those guidelines, the university’s responses have gotten, well, more in-your-face.
“We will not tolerate anyone putting the health, safety and well-being of our campus and the Syracuse community at risk,” the university said after the most recent party. It warned that any student who hosts or organizes a campus party or gathering could face suspension or expulsion and anyone who attends those gatherings could face “substantial disciplinary action.”
As Syracuse continues to try to hit students with an abundance of information to prevent and mitigate potential spread of the virus, one of the unique measures it has undertaken is sending a team of “welcome ambassadors” from the Public Safety Office door-to-door to visit with students off-campus, sharing guidelines about proper social distancing and limiting gatherings to less than 25 people. Syracuse knows the importance of having everyone heed those messages.
“I want you to understand right now and very clearly that we have one shot to make this happen,” J Michael Haynie, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, said in a message to students. “The world is watching, and they expect you to fail. Prove them wrong. Be better. Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself.”
West Virginia University
The messaging can’t be any more concrete or thorough than on West Virginia’s website regarding social distancing, testing, the impact of COVID-19 and being responsible. Yet, at West Virginia, the No. 4 party school in the nation, and at many schools there isn’t much information on actual “parties.”
Earlier this week, the university suspended six students for violating safety policies at parties that happened off campus. There is a high concern for spread on campus at West Virginia, which doesn’t officially open for classes until Wednesday but already has reported more than 100 positive COVID-19 tests of students and staff.
“There will be consequences for those who refused to do the right thing, including expulsion,” said Corey Farris, dean of students.
One of the ways West Virginia is dealing with the crisis is by providing easy access for faculty and students to report violations. Students and staff not only can submit incident reports online about individuals violating various regulations, but also can contact the university’s police department via phone or by reporting an incident through the LiveSafe app. West Virginia is also requiring students to complete a COVID-19 online module to further understand the importance of safety and the implications of not adhering to guidelines.
Ranking No. 5 on Princeton’s list and located in the ultimate party spot – New Orleans – Tulane understood the impact bringing back students on campus could have during a pandemic. So, it took a very hardline stance from the start.
Erica Woodley, dean of students, sent this all caps message to the student body: “DO NOT HOST PARTIES OR GATHERINGS WITH MORE THAN 15 PEOPLE, INCLUDING THE HOST. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL FACE SUSPENSION OR EXPULSION FROM THE UNIVERSITY.”
That attention-grabbing line, along with Tulane mandating testing every individual prior to arrival on campus has seemed to work. No reported party violations so far.
To further get the word out on important safety guidelines, Tulane has positioned a team of “public health ambassadors” at a number of locations across campus in bright green shirts to deliver messages and masks to staff, students and visitors.
University of Maine
Most of the students at UMaine, the nation’s No. 6 party school, haven’t arrived on campus yet, which has given its leaders plenty of time to gather data, formulate a plan and deliver a succinct message to students: partying this year will not be tolerated.
“Off-campus parties jeopardize public health and our ability to educate students on our campuses,” said UMaine system Chancellor Dannel Malloy, the former governor of Connecticut. “We issued guidance on events and parties to make it clear right from the start that participation in our safety protocols is mandatory and extends to off-campus activities.”
Students must have a negative COVID-19 test before returning and have been asked to sign the Black Bear Pact to say they will act safely and responsibly on campus. The state of Maine has posted low numbers of cases and deaths throughout the pandemic, but the arrival of students, especially those from outside the state, may present challenges in Orono and across its system. The school is requiring a 14-day mandatory quarantine coming from beyond Maine’s borders, including those from hot spot states.
The university has been collaborating closely with fraternities and sororities to set expectations for the upcoming year. Students and staff will always know where they stand with regards to number of cases on campus as Maine has provided a dashboard with real-time updates. As of Friday afternoon, there were 675 tests done and no positives.
Chris Burt is a reporter and editor at University Business