Life on college campuses is as close to normal before the pandemic as it has been in 18 months, but as the semester progresses with few interruptions, some students are pushing back, calling mitigating measures as schools imposed overbroad.
Student complaints include objections to restrictions on their movement on and off campus, increased surveillance and what they see as an erosion of civil liberties. Student-led petitions have prompted some schools to abandon the use of tracking apps and demand the wearing of sensors that monitor vital signs.
“I feel like school blackmailed me, they get all this personal information and in return I get an education,” said Dan Smith, a graduate student in labor history at Wayne State University in Detroit. “This is the growth of the surveillance state. “
When Covid-19 forced colleges and universities to send millions of students home last year, it hampered their ability to teach and cost them billions of dollars in income from room and board and from sport events. This year, in an effort to stay open and safe, around 1,000 schools have made vaccines mandatory, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Epidemics are much lower than last year and hospitalizations among students are rare. So far, only a handful of schools have returned to distance learning.
About three-quarters of students support vaccination mandates, according to surveys. University professors also widely support them and have protested in schools where vaccines are not required.
What annoys students this fall are the precautions they feel are going too far, especially on campuses where vaccination rates are nearly universal.
Protests and petitions have erupted in at least 40 schools pushing back mandates for vaccines and masks. Some come from the same groups that complained before the pandemic that their schools are becoming as guarded as prisons.
At the University of Southern California, 95% of students are vaccinated but they need proof of a negative weekly Covid-19 test to enter campus. Students should leave the classrooms to take a sip of water, rather than just sliding their masks down. Security guards are walking around the library and the student union to remind students to cover their noses and mouths with their masks, second student Marin Ruiz said.
“It sounds like overbreadth,” Ms. Ruiz said. “Are you wondering where all this medical information is going?” Can teachers see it? “
As of July, approximately 1,000 of the 60,000 members of the USC community have tested positive for Covid-19, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, health officer for USC Student Health. Of these cases, about three-quarters were symptomatic and a handful required hospitalization. All medical information collected by the school is protected by privacy laws, she said. The professors are not aware of the specific medical information of the students.
“We are in what I think is the messy part of the pandemic. We’re trying to figure out over the next six to nine months, how are we going to make the transition to managing this endemic disease? ” she said. “How can we back down while protecting our community, and I don’t think any of us know that. “
Michigan has seen its fair share of retaliation: Students at Oakland University near Detroit successfully fend off a wearable “bio button” designed to monitor heart rate, temperature and breathing, and warn the patient. school if a student showed signs of Covid-19. At Albion College in Albion, Michigan, students asked the school to remove an app that monitored their location, on and off campus. Last week, Western Michigan University lost a federal appeal demanding that student athletes be vaccinated to play.
Montana State University instituted a policy to place students on probation who have been twice flagged down by a professor for not wearing a mask. A third complaint results in a suspension of one semester. A fourth mask violation is grounds for deportation.
The expansion of video surveillance inside student hostels during the pandemic also caused a backlash. Millions of students are now taking exams online while being watched by their computer’s camera by an employee of a surveillance company or by software designed to detect any movement that could be interpreted as cheating.
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Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many universities were already recording student faces with CCTV cameras, tracking their movements with GPS, and monitoring their messages on social media and emails. Schools also regularly detail students’ study habits through digital textbooks, record when they enter buildings, record their attendance in class, at the library and even at the football game. All of these relatively new tracking technologies are in addition to years-old systems that leverage student IDs to monitor how often individuals enter gyms, dorms, and cafeterias.
The warrants have added an extra level of control, even for those not on campus. A New Jersey student was banned from taking classes at Rutgers University because he was not vaccinated, even though he takes all of his classes online from home.
A spokesperson for the school said that even though students are enrolled in distance learning courses, they still need to be vaccinated because “they will most likely come to campus at some point.”
Sara Razi, a student at Rutgers, New Jersey president for Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian organization with chapters in colleges across the country, helped organize two protests against the vaccine and mask warrants at Rutgers where she sees “A creeping authoritarianism”.
The vaccination rate among students at the school is around 98%. Recently Ms Razi took off her mask in the library to take a sip of coffee and a librarian berated her, she said.
“This woman said, ‘You are breaking the mask policy,’” Ms. Razi said. “I said to him, ‘What’s the matter, am I having a cup of coffee?’ She said, ‘I don’t care, put it on.’ “
Write to Douglas Belkin at [email protected]
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