The Columbia Community Health Compact will be tested this semester as the University welcomes approximately 1,800 undergraduates to campus, nearly double its on-campus student population from the fall semester.
Even with a record-breaking COVID-19 positivity rate in New York state, the threat of a more contagious variant of the virus becoming dominant by March, and hundreds of social distancing violations reported in the fall, the University is confident that it can protect its on-campus population. Columbia is increasing testing and enforcing stricter disciplinary measures for violations of the Community Health Compact.
University President Lee Bollinger announced on Nov. 16 that the University would be allowing seniors, some juniors, and students with a demonstrated need for housing to come to campus. All students living in on-campus housing are expected to follow the Community Health Compact. The Compact requires all community members, whenever possible, to wear face coverings, keep at least six feet apart and participate in tracking, testing, and hygiene protocols.
During the fall semester, there were 258 reports of alleged Health Compact violations. Some of these cases are still pending review, but as of the first week of the spring semester, the University determined 219 violations had occurred on campus.
For the spring term, the University strengthened disciplinary measures for individuals found in violation of the Compact. After two Compact violations, an individual will be placed on Conditional Disciplinary Probation. Students with three repeated violations or violations of large consequence are addressed by the University’s Dean’s Discipline review process, and will be at risk of receiving Disciplinary Probation, removal from housing, or another sanction determined to be proportionate to the severity of the violation.
So far, the Dean’s Discipline process has found 76 total individuals in violation of the Compact. An additional 210 individuals committed lesser violations and received policy education.
April Wang, CC ’24, lived on campus in the fall and returned for the spring. She said one of her worries about bringing back more students is the potential for greater and more frequent violations of the Compact.
“Hearing how they were inviting a lot more people back on campus made it more worrying to come back,” Wang said. “I knew that with more people it’s going to be harder to control larger gatherings and parties I know are going to happen this semester. It’s made me a little bit more wary, but I knew I had to come on campus.”
Individual differences influence these risk-taking decisions, and so can general uncertainties about catching COVID-19 or the possibility of being disciplined. Lecturer in the Discipline of Psychology Katherine Fox-Glassman is a psychologist at Columbia who studies and teaches about decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. She said that the sanctions following violations of the Compact can either establish proper social norms or backfire.
“The fact that you have these punishments, especially if they’re strong punishments for breaking the rules, suggest that there are rule-breakers out there, which might for some people imply a social norm of rule-breaking,” Fox-Glassman said.
On average, people are more likely to be risk-seeking when they have desires and under ambiguous circumstances. Although rule-breakers are inevitable, which is likely the reason behind the sanctions, Fox-Glassman said that a good course of action for Columbia will be to focus on the positives of being responsible, as opposed to the risks of being irresponsible.
“Anytime you can frame something as a gain—stay home and keep your community safe, stay home and get us back to normal faster, or whatever the positive message is—the lab research suggests that ... that could be more effective,” Fox-Glassman said.
Dr. Linda Valeri, an assistant professor of biostatistics at Mailman School of Public Health, said that shaming rule-breakers is not the best route forward. Continuous messaging about a culture of respect, as well as organizing safe, outdoor activities and restructuring classes to encourage more small-group work, can show students that college life can continue to be social in a safe way.
“It would be very helpful showing a lot of pictures of how students can be working together––maybe in smaller groups, but having masks; having runs in the park in small groups; some activities that are still outdoor,” Valeri said. “They’re still encouraging social distancing in a way that still allows us to be social because that’s who we are. That’s the main reason why the University really wants us to go back to campus because our life on campus is the life of Columbia.”
Max Lu, CC ’24, arrived on campus for the first time this semester. He said that the risk of contracting COVID-19 at home is high, too, and that he will be complying with the Compact to best protect himself.
“If everybody just follows everything, I think it’ll be okay,” Lu said. “Most people here are here for a reason. I think we just have the responsibility to try not to be a vector of transmission.”
Valeri conducted a two-week study in April titled “Covid 19 and its implication on social activity, loneliness and stigma.” The study had 1,200 participants, ages 18 to 70, and aimed to find ways to prevent feelings of isolation or shame in individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 or living in high-risk areas.
She said that frustration is what might be motivating students to violate the Compact. Bringing back more students to campus may not lessen this inclination because having more students around may not necessarily lessen their feelings of loneliness.
“We should not think now people are back and, therefore, they’re going to feel less lonely,” Valeri said. “Actually, I think it could happen the opposite if their expectations of working together that the students have are not met. This might not be met at the fault of anyone but because of our difficulty in reshaping the way we work together in this setting, so I think we need to find ways to encourage students to get together safely.”
Columbia has assessed its quarantine and isolation capacity in the hope of preventing large outbreaks, like ones that have occurred at universities like the University of Notre Dame and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Currently Furnald is the primary residence hall for isolation and close-contact quarantine, while Schapiro and Carman have been reserved specifically for quarantining, although Carman is only reserved until Jan. 31. Since all rooms are single occupancy, dorm rooms can be considered quarantine spaces in the event of a large outbreak.
Despite twice as many students living on campus compared to last semester, residence halls are cumulatively under 30 percent capacity. According to Melanie Bernitz, the associate vice president and medical director of Columbia Health, the goal was to keep density low, so that included opening five more residence halls than last semester—Woodbridge, Watt, Hogan, Broadway and Hartley.
“The buildings won’t feel more dense,” Bernitz said. “It’s still really thinly populated, even with more students coming back, and I think pairing that with all of the other protocols that we have in place, and the testing, and the tracing, helps us feel very comfortable with this group coming back.”
As part of the University’s preventative measures, wastewater from each residence hall is tested regularly for traces of COVID-19 genetic material. On Jan. 8, traces of SARS-COV2 were detected in the wastewater of Wien Hall. Residents were instructed via email to secure a test immediately, and, if they were not able to, to quarantine for four days until the following Tuesday when tests became available again.
Bernitz said that Columbia’s robust testing program gives the University confidence coming into the spring semester. Columbia’s plan was determined independently from vaccine roll-outs, so the decision to bring back more students reflects a hope and belief that the Compact will be upheld.
“Seeing how our students have taken up behavior on campus around maintaining these elements of the Compact––the ongoing communication, the ongoing education, the ongoing community good––this is what protects each other,” Bernitz said. “How we help each other out really helps, and that’s another area where campuses have been successful, where the whole community really participates in these safety measures.”