de Wolff: Put Students in Quarantine, Not on Flights Home

Instead of banishing them from campus, Dartmouth should quarantine students caught violating the “Community Expectations.”

by Thomas de Wolff | 4/9/21 2:10am

In a year of online classes and limited in-person interaction, many students have skirted the restrictions of Dartmouth’s “Community Expectations” so they can socialize with friends. This behavior carries several risks — besides the danger of students catching COVID-19, there is always the chance that Safety and Security officers catch the students instead. When this happens, students are catapulted into an opaque disciplinary process that in the fall resulted in 86 students “disappearing.”

The College seems to believe that when students are caught partaking in prohibited behaviors that risk spreading COVID-19, the most logical response is to send them home. Ironically, with this response — ostensibly intended as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19 — the College fails to abide by the spirit of its very own guidelines in disregarding the potential for homebound students to contribute to the spread of the disease. Rather than putting students on a flight home, Dartmouth should put students caught violating the Community Expectations into a 10-day quarantine to prevent any further spread of COVID-19 while still deterring clandestine behavior.

The Community Expectations decree that students who host or attend prohibited in-person gatherings may face “immediate removal from campus and/or disciplinary action.” However, Dartmouth has made little information available regarding the specifics of its disciplinary process. The Community Expectations do not detail exactly who makes decisions, only stating that “violations of the expectations will be handled expeditiously by the dean of the College or her designee.” Nor do they define what actions would lead to a complete loss of campus access as opposed to a simple written warning from Safety and Security. One thing the Community Expectations do make clear is that students cannot appeal decisions, which are effective immediately, forcing students to “vacate campus housing within 24 hours of receiving such notice.”

In the fall, students who were caught by Safety and Security partaking in unsanctioned social gatherings could expect to hear from associate dean of student affairs Katherine Burke. In a letter ordering one student home in October, Burke told the student that “you must leave your residence hall and the campus as soon as possible, and no later than noon tomorrow.” The student did not have to test before leaving. The College’s priority in this instance appeared not to be to limit the spread of COVID-19, but rather to punish the transgressor and remove them from campus as soon as possible.

By contrast, in a November email from College Health Service director Mark Reed, students were asked to “please schedule your final test before leaving campus so that you receive the results before departing.” Similarly, when students fled campus during the winter term outbreak, Dartmouth recommended that students take a test 48 hours before leaving and receive a negative test result 24 hours before leaving. Dartmouth should apply this logic to students who lose campus privileges as well. If the College continues to send students home, it has a responsibility to ensure they are not bringing COVID-19 home with them.  

Though the spring term has only just begun, I personally know some students who have been caught socializing and forced to leave campus. Given that the College detected 35 active cases and several clusters of COVID-19 during the initial quarantine period, which it attributed to students returning to campus after spring break, it is entirely possible that some of these students who have been sent home contracted COVID-19 through underground gatherings while they were here. For this reason, it is wholly irresponsible on the part of the College to have sent them away without regard for those who might come into contact with students on their way home, including fellow travelers and family.

Rather than continuing with this thoughtless practice of immediately sending students home, the best course of action for the College is to place students caught violating the Community Expectations in a mandatory 10-day quarantine. This approach will ensure that students do not spread the virus to others if they carry it while keeping in place a more than sufficient punishment for students who flout the College’s rules. Just ask any of the students on campus in the winter who endured the quarantine period brought on by the end-of-term outbreak — they can attest that having to live in isolation for a week and a half would be enough of a consequence for already-lonely students. This method would not place an undue burden on Dartmouth’s dedicated quarantine and isolation housing either, as even at the peak of the outbreak in the winter term, the majority of quarantine housing remained unoccupied. 

Continuing to send students home may be good optics for an administration that wants to present an image of actively policing student misbehavior. It is also, however, rather dangerous for the poor soul unlucky enough to sit next to a COVID-19-positive student on their flight home.