How Legal Is Penn State’s COVID-19 Compact?
Penn State received plenty of backlash earlier this summer when it initially released its COVID-19 Compact, an agreement detailing the university’s expectations for social distancing, mask-wearing, and coronavirus testing on campus.
Students and parents became displeased when they read that they must assume “any and all risk” of potentially contracting the coronavirus on campus this semester. Students were required to click “agree” before they could access LionPATH, Penn State’s student information center, or return to campus.
Although the compact was later revised to change some of the languages in question, it has raised many questions across the Penn State community regarding its legality and enforcement. To set the record straight, we reached out to Penn State law professor Dara E. Purvis.
“You can fight over them in court,” Purvis said. “If Penn State hadn’t changed the language, would the clause be enforceable? Maybe. There are very strong arguments against it, but there isn’t a super clear rule saying it would not be enforceable.”
Purvis added Penn State can still be sued over a coroanvirus-related death even after it revised the compact’s language.
“There were still be lots of arguments that Penn State can make about what they tried to do to make campus as safe of an environment as possible,” she said. “They still can sue, but it will be a difficult case.”
The compact also acknowledges that students could be disciplined by the university if they are caught violating social distancing and public health protocols. Purvis said she doesn’t think there are legal issues with Penn State disciplining students who are caught violating these protocols off-campus, either.
“Typically, we don’t think of universities as monitoring your off-campus behavior, but the reason that it’s relevant here is that in a much more direct way than normal, off-campus behavior endangers the health of people that you come in contact with on campus,” Purvis said.
“It’s a little bit of a gray area, but I do think that the public health crisis certainly strengthens the university’s argument that they must have more input than usual in your activities off-campus.”
Even just a few days after freshmen began moving in, some students have already run into trouble regarding social distancing and mask-wearing. Videos showing students congregating at East Halls without masks began surfacing on social media Wednesday night.
President Eric Barron issued a statement Thursday morning responding to the incident. He stated that the university is ready to move to online instruction if necessary potentially suspend or expel students who aren’t following the proper procedures. Penn State is still scheduled to resume in-person instruction on August 24.
Will Barron and his fellow administrators actually take action against students who break the compact? Who knows. However, it’s probably more legal than you’d think.
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