26 Aug Jonathan Cartu Announces: ‘Acknowledgement of risk’: the first paper facing many
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When it comes to mitigating the spread of covid-19 on campus, college administrators have been consistent: it all comes down to student behavior, they say.
“We’ve been communicating our expectations all summer to students,” Pitt Dean Kenyon Bonner said during a Monday news conference.
College students everywhere are being asked to shoulder some of the responsibility for preventing the spread of covid-19. Many institutions have already cracked down on students flouting social distance rules, attending parties or violating no-visitor policies. And at Pitt and other universities, the burden started early with the “acknowledgement of risk” form.
While some students and scholars fear the document raises questions about a university’s preparedness in virus prevention, placing the bulk of responsibility on young adults, others see them as practical and necessary to protect everyone involved.
“Each of us has a role to play in keeping our community as healthy as possible,” said Kevin Zwick, a spokesman for Pitt. “Even with all of the measures the university is taking — and everything our faculty, staff and students are doing to help keep all of us safe — the impact of the pandemic on campus operations will be significant and there are risks associated with voluntary return to campus.”
Olivia Enders, a graduate researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, said she found the language of Pitt’s risk acknowledgment waiver “jarring.”
When she opened her email one morning in early August, the Pitt Community Compact popped up, followed by a “Return to Campus acknowledgment.”
Students must agree to new rules such as face coverings and hand washing, acknowledge that “the university cannot limit all potential vectors” of infection, and agree that they are returning to the university “assuming the risk” of exposure to covid-19, according to the acknowledgment.
Enders said she found no issue with the compact, which was written with the help of student leaders and stressed a community mentality.
“The issue I really had was with the section that centered around ‘I assume all of the risks voluntarily,’” she said.
Administrators and liability experts argue the acknowledgments are necessary to increase awareness and emphasize the communal responsibilities of following public health orders. Universities are not alone in the use of these documents — businesses are using waivers and acknowledgments of risk as well, said attorney Jim Southworth, a principal of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Southworth said the documents are normally an important step to make sure patrons are informed of the threats to safety that could arise in a public place, he said. Acknowledgments of risk differ from waivers in that they don’t ban a person from bringing claims against a business — they are meant to be more of a mutual agreement.
But in a university setting, the agreements can be off-putting to students. Some legal scholars argue they allow universities to “lower their obligation” to ensure a safe environment.
Other schools in the area are also having students agree to new Codes of Conduct or behavior compacts.
“We have worked very, very hard to convey to our students: ‘Look. It’s all about mask and distance,’” John Williams, director of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office said Monday.
Pitt’s administration had fielded complaints over the weekend about students partying, Bonner said, just days after he issued a letter warning students that their behavior is “threatening a successful fall term for all of us.”
Bonner said if students don’t take don’t comply with restrictions, they will affect the university’s ability to host any in-person learning or activities.
“If students are not taking this seriously and we have infections across campus, that will impact what our operating postures are,” he said. “Everything is really connected and important.”
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