Over the past few months, UB has embraced a mantra:
Wear your mask.
Fill out your Daily Health Check.
But as the leaves change color and the calendar flips to October, one question has taken on even greater urgency: who is responsible for enforcing the numerous COVID-related policies the school has implemented since the pandemic began?
That remains largely unanswered.
Across the country, colleges are grappling with how to enforce mask wearing and social distancing. Some of the most vocal critics of schools’ reopening plans are faculty and staff members who have expressed concern that these rules — which in some schools are mandatory, and in others are encouraged — aren’t being enforced. UB has not escaped criticism.
The school has been ambiguous when discussing enforcement measures. Students can face “disciplinary action” when violating certain policies, like mask wearing or social distancing, but it is unclear who is responsible for dealing with these non-compliers.
In a statement, Deputy Chief of Police Joshua Sticht said that “everyone is responsible to promote compliance,” but that the emphasis is on collective responsibility, not punishment.
“The various University planning committees decided early on that it would be more practical and effective to focus on promoting voluntary compliance and shared responsibility, rather than enforcement and consequences,” Sticht said.
Sticht said UBPD would “definitely get involved if there was a criminal violation,” but he added that there has not been “anything like that” reported. UBPD received 20 complaints of COVID violations from Aug. 27 to Oct. 5, according to documents obtained by The Spectrum.
In July, UB Student Conduct and Advocacy created a Student Compliance Policy that encourages students to adhere to the university’s COVID rules. “If we all work together, we can build and sustain a culture that takes our health, public safety and the safety of others seriously,” the policy states.
The policy encourages individuals to take a “Together, we are UB” pledge, which asks students to “demonstrate their shared commitment by pledging to follow these guidelines” — completing the Daily Health Check, maintaining proper social distancing, frequently washing hands, being aware of guidelines and wearing a face covering.
But the policy is light on enforcement details.
In a section about consequences for students who do not comply with these rules, the authors state, “student non-compliance in public spaces and classrooms is rare and seldom leads to disciplinary actions.” They say that if students do not comply with a policy, “they should be asked to comply and warned that continuing such behavior can result in disciplinary action.”
But it doesn’t specify who should be issuing the warning. And it is unclear from published materials whether this responsibility belongs to University Police, UB administrators or students themselves. (UB Student Conduct and Advocacy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
For the most part, students have been complying with these new policies.
In an email, UB said that “We want to applaud the overwhelming majority of UB students who have complied with UB and SUNY health and safety guidelines to ensure a safe and healthy fall semester.”
On Sept. 23, The Spectrum observed 452 individuals outside Greiner Hall, Capen Hall and the Student Union from 2 to 3 p.m. Four hundred twenty wore a face covering properly (92.9%), 18 wore a face covering improperly (3.98%) and 14 didn’t wear a face covering at all (3.10%).
Jacob Klieger, a senior communication major, said that students have bought into UB’s COVID guidelines.
“I haven’t seen any strict acts of enforcement because everyone seems to be complying on campus,” Klieger said.
But not everyone has complied.
Since the semester began, some students have hosted small off-campus parties. Others have partaken in on-campus gatherings. At night and on weekends, some students have gathered outside Ellicott Complex or on the Ellicott Creek Bike Path.
Sam Leifer, a sophomore management student, said the school is “absolutely enforcing face masks and social distancing,” but that they have not been checking “at all” to see if students are filling out their Daily Health Check, a mandatory tool that is intended to “help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus” and “detect possible cases” early.
Katie McCarthy, a junior nursing student, also said she has not seen this policy get enforced.
“For my one lab, my graduate assistant just asks if we did [the daily health check],” McCarthy said. But she added that her graduate assistant does not encourage non-compliers to complete the form.
It is also unclear if faculty and staff are filling out the Daily Health Check. The campus remains open to the general public.
On Sept. 29, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced statewide safety protocols to strengthen penalties for non-compliance. The protocols allow schools to sanction misbehaving students with “suspension from academic and/or housing access,” “an academic and/or housing suspension,” or “permanent dismissal from the institution.”
Students can be punished for failing to self-isolate or quarantine; for hosting or attending a prohibited gathering; for violating face mask or social distancing requirements; or for failing to comply with other campus health protocols.
But UB has not stated how it plans to enforce these guidelines. Instead, it will continue to focus on voluntary compliance and shared responsibility.
Other universities across the country and in Buffalo have suspended and expelled students for violations. At New York University, administrators suspended more than 20 students who failed to comply with safety measures. Syracuse University suspended 23 students after they partook in a large on-campus gathering.
“I would remind everyone that we are taking these steps together not just to protect ourselves but to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” Sticht said. “Something that is at most a minor inconvenience for us can really make a huge difference to a friend, a faculty member or a family member.”
Justin Weiss is the senior features editor and can be reached at email@example.com.
Justin Weiss is The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.