Well, here we are again.
The University of Virginia is dealing with additional reports that students are not following COVID restrictions, thus endangering the health not only of themselves but of those with whom they come in contact at wineries, breweries and restaurants.
When last we dealt with this topic in this space, UVa was tightening restrictions on the number of people permitted to gather in one space, from 15 to five. The tougher limits were set to run for two weeks.
The university said the restrictions were not a reaction to an increase in COVID protocol violations by students. Instead, the restrictions were intended to be pre-emptive — to prevent an uptick in health risks due to close gatherings.
Prior to that, UVa had made clear to students returning to classes that they would be expected to wear masks, avoid large social gatherings and practice other common-sense safety measures.
Yet from the beginning, there have been reports of large gatherings at which students partied in close proximity and without wearing masks — often with photos floating around on social media as evidence.
Recent weeks have seen another rash of such complaints.
Charlottesville residents have reported several weekend parties in the greater Rugby Road area, as well as a large student gathering at an area winery weekend before last.
On Nov. 15, UVa Dean of Students Allen W. Grove reminded students that they had agreed to follow COVID protocols as a condition of being allowed to return to classes, and noted that violations will be referred to the University Judiciary Committee.
In late September, UVa had suspended several students for violating COVID health rules. We had hoped that knowing the university would take sanctions seriously would compel students similarly to take health rules seriously.
And perhaps they did, up to a point — until the end of the semester approached simultaneously with unseasonably warm autumn weather, luring people out of doors.
When officials urge people to get outside to boost their mental and physical health, they are recommending hikes or outdoor play by individuals or small, closely related groups — socially distanced and masked as appropriate.
It is not healthy for large groups to congregate outdoors or indoors, irresponsibly unmasked.
This has implications for us all. While it might be cynically vengeful to consign the students to the consequences of their own actions, the consequences don’t stop there. Also placed at risk are servers or other patrons at bars, restaurants, wineries and the like.
And then there’s the issue of overloading the health-care system. If hospitals must care for sick students, who could so easily have protected themselves from illness, then hospital capacity is reduced for others in need — whether COVID patients or those suffering from other illnesses or injuries.
Meanwhile, the question of deterrence through punishment is still an open one.
What level of punishment would be effective — and do we even actually want that? If hundreds of students must be suspended in order to enforce good behavior on the remaining thousands, are the university and the community prepared to go to those lengths?
There is also the issue of due process. Because university rules are at stake, alleged violations of COVID protocols are referred to the University Judiciary Committee.
But the university judiciary process may not be adequate for the current task — as is the case with so many processes and systems in the COVID era.
If and until the campus judicial system returns enough guilty verdicts and sanctions enough violators to catch students’ attention, we are left with the current — and apparently ineffectual — approach: simply warning students that they are at risk of punishment.
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