Northeastern University says it has dismissed 11 students who gathered in a hotel room in violation of the school’s coronavirus policies and will not refund their tuition, marking one of the most severe punishments college students have faced for breaking pandemic rules.
University staff members found the first-year students hanging out last week in a room at a Westin Hotel in downtown Boston, which Northeastern is using as a temporary dorm for about 800 students, according to a university statement. Officials instructed them to take a coronavirus test, then leave campus within 24 hours.
The students, who were part of a study-abroad program that was held in Boston this semester, will not be reimbursed for their $36,500 tuition payments, according to the university. They will be allowed back on campus in the spring. In the meantime, the university said, they can appeal the punishment in an expedited hearing.
The dismissal underscores the steps that universities nationwide are taking to deter behavior that could accelerate the spread of the novel coronavirus on campuses.
“Cooperation and compliance with public health guidelines is absolutely essential,” Madeleine Estabrook, senior vice chancellor for student affairs at Northeastern, said in a statement Friday. “Those people who do not follow the guidelines – including wearing masks, avoiding parties and other gatherings, practicing healthy distancing, washing your hands, and getting tested – are putting everyone else at risk.”
But public health experts have cautioned that such actions by universities may do more harm than good. Intense punishments could create a chilling effect, discouraging students from participating in contact tracing or reporting their symptoms and making it harder to track and contain infections, said Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard University.
“The greater the punishment, the less likely it is the students are going to comply with any public health efforts,” Marcus told The Washington Post. “Using a punitive approach doesn’t address the problem, which is that students have unmet needs for social contacts. That’s not going to go away if you throw students off campus.”
Marcus cited the outdoor gathering space that the University of Notre Dame set up for students as an example of what universities could do to help students mingle in an environment in which transmission is less likely. The school converted a tract of lawn at the center of campus into an outdoor lounge, with Adirondack chairs, fire pits, a stage and an open area to play games.
“I feel like what Northeastern did was extreme,” Marcus said. “Universities need to be more compassionate and more creative in providing safer alternatives for students to socialize.”
Nearly every major university that has resumed in-person learning in recent weeks has reported coronavirus clusters among students and staff members. Some large universities, including James Madison University and North Carolina State, have pivoted to online classes after outbreaks emerged.
Health experts have warned that Americans appear to be letting their guards down when it comes to protecting themselves and others from the virus. That could spell trouble going into the fall as people spend more time indoors in close quarters and cooler weather facilitates the spread of the virus.
“People are exhausted,” Gottlieb told CNN’s “Face the Nation.” “I think that people’s willingness to comply with the simple things that we know can reduce spread is going to start to fray as we head into the fall and the winter, and that’s another challenge, trying to keep up our vigilance at a time when we know that this can spread more aggressively.”
The rolling average for daily new cases in the United States dipped by a marginal 2.7% over the past week, according to The Post’s analysis of state health data. Southern states hit hard by a summer surge in infections continued to report progress in controlling their outbreaks, but the virus was on the rise in several Midwestern states – particularly North Dakota and South Dakota, where new infections have more than doubled in the past month.
Local officials and health experts cautioned that Labor Day weekend festivities could fuel a spike in cases similar to the wave of infections that began after Memorial Day, when large gatherings caused virus clusters to emerge nationwide.
At the end of May, the country was tallying about 22,000 infections daily. The country’s average daily caseload now stands at nearly twice that number, according to The Post’s tracking. On Friday, the United States added more than 50,000 cases for the first time since Aug. 15.
Although drug companies remain under pressure to produce an effective vaccine, some of the Trump administration’s actions in recent days have fueled worry that development is being inappropriately fast-tracked so a vaccine will be ready by Election Day on Nov. 3.
About two-thirds of U.S. voters think a vaccine probably would have been rushed without enough testing if it were approved this year, according to a CBS News poll released Sunday. Just over 2 in 10, 21% of voters, said they would get a vaccine as soon as possible, down from 32% in late July.
Gottlieb and Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser for the Trump administration’s effort to accelerate vaccine production, have said that a vaccine is “extremely” unlikely to be widely available this year. Trump, however, said Friday that a vaccine probably will be available in October.
Federal officials have promised not to consider political factors in vaccine production.
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The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed to this report.