When a third-year resident assistant first heard about Stanford’s decision to bring back juniors and seniors to campus in the spring, she was excited to be reunited with her friends after an entire year of remote learning. But concerns began to surface when she viewed the situation through the lens of her role as a frosh dorm student staff member.
“As a junior, I’m really excited to be around people my age and I feel it could potentially work if people follow the rules,” she said. “But as an RA, I am concerned that juniors and seniors might be more inclined to break rules and do it in a way that Stanford can’t catch them.”
The conflicting views held by this RA are shared by other student staff who are split on Stanford’s decision to bring back juniors and seniors to campus in the spring. But a common thread united the four RAs interviewed: a desire for the University to be more proactive in holding students accountable for public health violations.
While most academic instruction will remain remote, at least 1,300 juniors and seniors are expected to join undergraduates with approved special circumstances and graduate students on campus. Most RAs agreed with Stanford’s decision but are concerned that students will continue to violate COVID-19 protocols — and they’re not sure the educational approach the University adopted will be as effective as hoped.
Despite receiving a significant number of reported violations, Stanford has only taken action against a handful and remains tight-lipped about the consequences, which could have the effect of fostering a culture of impunity, according to one RA. The University has received 133 tips since January through its Campus Compact reporting form, according to Student Affairs spokesperson Pat Harris. Only nine of those cases have been referred to compact review panels, which are charged with imposing consequences for severe violations.
Since the start of winter quarter, a spotlight has been placed on the rising number of prohibited gatherings, some of which are attended by upwards of 100 students. One RA said reports of gatherings at 680 Lomita and Florence Moore Hall has led them to believe that a small portion of the student population flagrantly disregards community health measures.
Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell urged juniors and seniors to be mindful of the significant restrictions — including masking, social distancing, a period of restricted activity and twice weekly testing — that remain in place.
“Though we would expect some gatherings to be possible, campus life still will be far less vibrant than students would experience in normal times,” the president and provost wrote in an email. “All juniors and seniors should consider these factors before making a final decision to come to campus.”
Students who violate health rules, though, are the exception, not the rule on campus. RAs said that the vast majority of students in their residence halls are abiding by health protocols and said the reduced student population on campus made it easier for residents to follow health measures implemented by the University.
Two RAs staffing frosh residences this quarter praised the household model, which allows students to form pods of up to eight students, as an effective way for residents to engage in safe social interactions. Stanford recently began allowing outdoor gatherings of up to eight students from three households if students reserve spaces ahead of time.
All four added that they thought the University should be more transparent about consequences for students who flout public health mandates — and ensure that the severity of the consequence is commensurate to the severity of the breach.
“I wasn’t surprised because college students will do that,” an RA said of the gatherings. “I was more so unimpressed by the lack of accountability and lack of response on the part of the university to prevent these large gatherings from happening again.”
An RA in the senior class noted that the number of students on campus with a single violation is small. “There are normally people with zero violations or a lot of violations and so the people who do break the rules do it consistently,” he said.
While the most severe consequence for breaching the Campus Compact is removal from campus housing, Stanford has yet to dole out the punishment, according to an individual with knowledge of the University’s decision-making process.
Other universities have taken a hardline stance on violations: In early fall, Northeastern University dismissed 11 students who had gathered in a hotel room and Dartmouth College announced in December that it had removed 86 students from campus during its fall term for violating COVID-19 rules.
Stanford administrators have emphasized that they are prioritizing education over penalties in handling compact violations. A frosh who breached COVID-19 rules, for instance, was required to give a presentation on the importance of masking and social distancing to other members of their dorm, according to an RA, in an indication of the University’s educational efforts toward addressing noncompliance.
Looking forward to spring
Some RAs expressed concern that the increase in students on campus coupled with the restricted activities period at the start of spring quarter could result in a surge in community spread. If cases increase in the first few weeks of spring quarter and the University maintains constraints on gatherings, two RAs said that upperclassmen would find ways to circumvent restrictions.
They added that a significant number of juniors and seniors may opt to live near campus during the spring quarter, which could result in off-campus gatherings that would be more difficult for the University to control.
When asked about gatherings off campus, Harris wrote that “attending a party blatantly disregards the health and safety of yourself and everyone around you: your friends, your households, your student staff, your RFs and CDs, your custodial staff and your dining hall staff,” reiterating a message sent to undergraduates on campus three weeks ago. The decision to be involved in a party is “a choice to put the lives of all of these individuals at risk and it is unacceptable.”