The Volokh Conspiracy

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Do Universities Really Expect to Treat their Students as "Pod" People?

Attempts to force college students into strict protocols are unlikely to succeed


The New York Times provides an in-depth look into the University of Kentucky's re-opening deliberations. The University President, a former professor of public health, described the process as a "moonshot." He is right. One plan would treat students as "pod" people:

 Team Wildcat suggested turning residence halls into protective cocoons for living and learning. "We have students functioning in pods, almost like family units," Dr. Cardarelli told her colleagues, describing the idea. "They're spending most of their time in residence halls together with the same students." Professors would come to the dorms to teach, she said, or do it via videoconference. This would reduce circulation and transmission of the virus, and make it easier to do contact tracing, her group theorized. The student pods would take turns going to the dining halls. And, Dr. Cardarelli added, "no more buffet."

I am very, very skeptical this sort of central planning can work. Will students actually spend all their time with people selected by the University? Are students barred from eating at off-campus establishments? What sorts of enforcement mechanisms exist to make sure students do not fraternize outside of their "pod"? Will the University really take disciplinary action if a student goes to a restaurant?

The University is also looking to an App to help with contact tracing:

To reduce the need for widespread tests during the semester, he envisioned using a cellphone app to keep sick students away from classes: If they answered "no" to every symptom — cough, fever, potentially loss of smell and taste — they would receive a "day pass" to flash at building entrance checkpoints.

May I provide an anecdote? I use an app called iClicker for attendance. Every class, students are required to "check in." I always remind the class, and indeed show the check-in list on the screen. Yet, every class, several students fail to check in. Some cite technical difficulties (the app didn't work). Others are candid, and say they forgot. And, from time to time, students check in when they are not physically present--that is, they check in from the library, on the bus, or from home. The app does include a geolocation function, but I disabled it--the feature sometimes prevents students from checking if privacy settings blocks GPS. As a result, invariably, I have to manually verify attendance after class--marking some people as present, and some people as absent. The app is far more efficient than using paper sign-in sheets. But human error, and indeed human failings, render it unreliable.

Does anyone think these sorts of contact tracing apps will be effective for college students? (See my prior post.) First, students will forget to use the app. No amount of notifications will work. Swipe left. Second, will administration officials really deny students entry to class if they do not have a "day pass"? Really? Hell, students who want to skip class will deliberately refuse to check in their symptoms. Students routinely feign sickness to get out of class. <<Cough Cough>> Third, students will not accurately assess their health. Some will simply lie because they do not care and want to go out. Others will minimize any possible symptoms, because young people think they are invincible.

And what about the faculty, who are neither young nor invincible? The Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kentucky was "surprised to hear from many professors who were reluctant to return." Surprised?

They were worried, she said, because they or someone close to them had underlying health conditions, or because they were fearful of bringing the virus home to their spouses and children.

The wary faculty might have a point, replied Capt. Rob Turner of the campus police department. The university did not operate in a vacuum, he argued.

One professor I know described the situation this way: "I love my students but I am not willing to die for them." These planners are divorced from reality.

Let's be frank. Universities need students back on campus for monetary reasons. And to achieve that end, they are willing to make campus life intolerable for students, faculty, and staff. Instruction, under these conditions will be extremely difficult. Moreover, all of these plans will swiftly be abandoned once an outbreak emerges on campus.

Administrations should be candid: they really have no idea how to safely bring students back to campus, and they shouldn't try. All of these efforts would be better spent at improving the quality of online education. Students may actually learn better in a safe environment at home, then by being secluded in "pods." At this difficult time, students need certainty, not more chaos.