By Austin Ferguson
As colleges across the country began their attempts to return to varying levels of instruction, many schools quickly ran into problems of students failing to obey health and safety guidelines.
Clusters of COVID-19 cases have appeared all over the country, with more than 50 positive cases appearing as close as The College of New Jersey in Rider’s neighboring Ewing, New Jersey, despite all of its classes being remote for the fall 2020 semester.
In response, many schools have brought down the hammer of discipline onto students not following rules on social distancing and wearing masks, ranging from fines and forced quarantines to suspensions, loss of housing or expulsion.
Rider University’s plan of discipline, though generally outlined in the Student Code of Social Conduct, was not directly clear upon the first release of the university’s “Resolved and Ready” plan.
In an interview with The Rider News, university President Gregory Dell’Omo acknowledged the paths that schools have taken in response to safety regulations related to the pandemic and gave Rider’s stance on enforcement and the university’s approach to managing the pandemic on campus.
“There’s been a debate in higher education whether to take a tough love approach or to create a positive environment where we encourage students to do the right thing,” Dell’Omo said. “We’re trying to take the middle road. We want everyone to be as responsible as possible.”
With the university’s “middle road” stance, Dell’Omo asserted that the highest priority will still be to protect the health and safety of the Rider community.
“We’re trying to take [enforcement] from an educational standpoint. Having said that though, if people are deliberately not following procedures, we will use the code of conduct to enforce that,” Dell’Omo said. “We are not afraid to enforce the rules.”
Within the Student Code of Social Conduct, a violation of the university’s health guidelines is defined as “Failure to adhere to directives issued in response to pandemics and other campuswide emergencies/unusual situations and designed to protect the health, safety and well-being of all members of the Rider community including students, faculty, staff and visitors,” with directives being able to come from Residence Life, Public Safety, Student Affairs or other faculty and staff.
The Student Code of Social Conduct designates a violation of section 4.12 (Failure to adhere to campus-wide pandemic/emergency directives) as a violation between levels one and five, which runs the gamut of all possible consequences mapped out in the Student Code of Social Conduct.
Within the Residence Life section of the code of conduct, regulations regarding COVID-19 response are outlined, including the restriction of out-of-building guests, properly notifying the university of close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or testing positive themselves, mandatory mask-wearing in public, indoor settings and a strong encouragement of mask-wearing outdoors when social distancing is not occurring.
The lowest level of discipline is level five, which constitutes a warning, a mandatory fine of at most $25 and a possibility of community or financial restitution or what the code of conduct refers to as “assigned tasks.”
The highest level of discipline is level one, which guarantees at least a one-year suspension from the university with a possibility of an indefinite or permanent expulsion. Students who find themselves in this category of discipline do not receive refunds on housing or tuition. To return, students have to re-apply for admission through the dean of students.
Levels two through four include varying combinations of discipline, including suspensions, loss of housing, restrictions of campus access and events, fines and both financial and community restitution.
Dell’Omo emphasized that communication between himself, his cabinet and different departments within the university is key to the maintenance of campus health and safety through the pandemic.
“One of the things I always talk about with the cabinet is getting updates from Student Life, Residence Life, Facilities and Public Safety [is] where people are adhering to [regulations], where they aren’t and how we are following up,” Dell’Omo said. “You want to avoid these problems of larger universities, and even smaller universities recently, who have had major mishaps.”
Though he has not been on campus often, Student Government Association President and senior musical theater major Dylan Erdelyi was pleased with Public Safety’s response to health and safety protocols on campus.
“As far as I know, there have been no major issues [on campus] and Public Safety has been enforcing as necessary,” Erdelyi said.
Dell’Omo is hopeful that students will better understand and cooperate with guidelines as the semester progresses, though he reiterated the duty that the university as a whole has to being safe on campus.
“Hopefully it won’t get to that point, but we all have to be responsible citizens in this community,” Dell’Omo said.
As of Sept. 15, the university has confirmed nine positive cases of COVID-19 from the start of the school’s closure in March.