College campuses have largely emptied of students who have returned home for Thanksgiving break and most will await the start of the spring semester next year.
But a handful of students in the New River Valley faced unexpected departures a bit earlier.
This semester, about 20 students across Virginia Tech and Radford University were suspended for violating public health rules aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Another 80 have faced what the universities call a “deferred suspension,” meaning they risk getting kicked out in the spring semester if they mess up again.
When universities first announced they would strictly enforce COVID-19 violations, some students, parents and even faculty criticized what they saw as a double standard. They argued that colleges were reopening in a fraught environment, and setting students up to fail, get kicked out and lose tuition money. In Boston, Northeastern University faced lawsuits after it suspended 11 students and kept their $36,000 in tuition; the university later said it would refund some of that money.
Locally, universities appear to have issued dozens of sanctions to students accused of flaunting coronavirus rules but largely refrained from imposing harsh penalties.
“My experience was that at the beginning of the semester both Radford University and Virginia Tech were particularly aggressive through the use of their university campus safety officers to monitor and sanction students for gathering in large numbers,” Rob Dean, a Roanoke attorney who has sued Tech over its suspension of cadets in a 2019 blood-pinning ritual, said Tuesday.
“But many times when we challenged the university charges, which carried with them a penalty of at least one semester of suspension, we were able to establish that the students had either utilized masks when gathering socially, refrained from gathering in large groups indoors, or basic matters, like the officers miscounted the number of people who were actually present,” Dean said.
Dean said his office was involved with “about a half dozen” cases that resolved without students getting suspended and without filing a lawsuit.
As of mid-November, 15 Tech students had been suspended for COVID-19-related infractions, according to Mark Owczarski, a university spokesman. Of those, 13 were suspended for the fall and two will serve their sanction in the spring semester.
Another 14 students faced “deferred suspensions,” which is a type of formal warning.
Overall, 101 students have faced what the university calls an “interim suspension,” which means they take an immediate pause on classes until a “conversation” occurs between administrators and a student. Owczarski said that talk takes place within 48 hours of the interim suspension and could mark the extent of the discipline. Or the matter could move forward to a student conduct proceeding.
“The goal is not to punish, per se,” Owczarski said. “The goal is to educate.”
Another two dozen students had student conduct cases pending as of mid-November, for failing to reply to notifications that they had to submit to mandatory random COVID-19 testing, he said. About 1,300 students weekly receive such prompts, Owczarski said, so with additional reminders, “we are very pleased with the overall student response to the testing program.”
As for how much money Tech has kept in tuition dollars, if any, from students suspended over COVID-19 rules, Owczarski said the university could not possibly say.
“That information has not been recorded, collected, calculated or anything of that sort of nature, and the reason for that is the university has no purpose for a summary of those 15 students who were suspended,” Owczarski said. “Those get into individual student records — conduct, finances, protected records. We don’t need to create, for any reason, records that answer the question that you’re asking.”
Depending on when the suspension occurred and how much students were paying in tuition, the amount could range from zero dollars to roughly a quarter-million dollars total.
At Radford University, five students were suspended because of COVID-19 infractions this fall, said Caitlyn Scaggs, a university spokeswoman. Eleven students are suspended for the spring semester. And another 66 students will be suspended if they face any additional disciplinary issues, she said.
Only one student suspended in the fall for a COVID-19 violation lost tuition money because of when the suspension occurred in the semester, Scaggs said. That student received $1,140.67 in refunds, and would owe $6,271.93, she said.
Hollins University in Roanoke County saw no student suspensions because of COVID-19 issues, a spokesman there said. Ferrum College did not respond to repeated requests for information and Roanoke College declined.
“I think going forward students have figured out a way to comply with the newer guidelines and avoid student conduct sanctions,” Dean, the attorney, said. “It really seemed to be a bigger issue at the beginning of the semester and, like everybody else, college students have been able to adapt to the new landscape that’s going to be with us for the next several months.”
Staff writer Sam Wall contributed information to this report.