Can schools punish students who break COVID-19 rules on spring break? Maybe.
Spring breakers are back, but this time schools are more prepared for COVID-19 rule breakers. After a year of pandemic schooling, districts and colleges are warning students to avoid travel. Some have canceled spring break altogether.
Even further, some schools have put protocols in place to prevent returning traveling students from coming back to in-person school. Instead, they will be required to quarantine or finish the semester virtually. As for students who flout the rules, schools have punished those who break COVID-19 restrictions on school grounds. Punishment for travel is trickier.
Beaches are already filling up with spring breakers. Just last weekend, Miami Beach declared a state of emergency because of out-of-control crowds. More than 1,000 arrests were made there over the spring break season.
Colleges and universities cancel or adjust spring break
An estimated 60% of colleges and universities took precautionary measures by canceling or adjusting their spring breaks, Christopher Marsicano, a professor of higher education practice at Davidson College in North Carolina, told USA TODAY.
“Effectively what colleges have done is create ways to limit mobility in general,” said Marsicano, who also serves as director of the College Crisis Initiative. More than a fourth of the nearly 2,000 higher education institutions Marsicano’s team surveyed completely canceled the break. About one-third chose to go with an alternate break, including mental health or wellness days, instead of the standard one week.
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Harvard University replaced spring break with five spaced-out wellness days. Texas A&M University and the University of Mississippi also went without a usual break, with the latter choosing to end the semester a week early. The University of California, Davis offered students $75 gift cards to avoid spring break travel.
Undergraduates at Lipscomb University, a private college in Nashville, will not return to campus after their spring break, which runs April 12-16. Instead, the remainder of their coursework, as well as their semester finals, will transition to remote learning, according to the university’s website.
“Residential students will be contacted by Student Life regarding restrictions for returning to campus following spring break,” the website reads.
K-12 schools asking for travel notifications, post-trip quarantines
Some school districts are asking parents and staff to advise them of their spring break travel plans if they’re going to a country with high transmission of the virus.
In Oklahoma’s Welch Public Schools, a rural district more than an hour from Tulsa, students and staff were required to notify the district and then quarantine for 14 days if they traveled to countries with moderate to high spread of the virus during last week’s break. The guidance was passed down by Oklahoma’s state health and education departments, according to the district.
In the Plano Independent School District, about 30 minutes from Dallas, Texas, students and staff traveling internationally for spring break, including cruises, were required to fill out a special form.
In Michigan, the East Lansing school district is asking students who leave the state or country over spring break, scheduled for April 2-11, to quarantine for 10 days upon returning, according to the Lansing State Journal.
Superintendent Dori Leyko acknowledged the post-travel quarantine isn’t mandatory, or even enforceable, but it’s still the safest way to keep the virus out of schools, she said. The district opened for in-person learning March 1.
How can schools enforce spring break precautions?
It’s unclear what punitive measures these schools can take against students found to have traveled to possible COVID-19 hotspots.
“Most institutions don’t have the power to lock down their students,” Marsicano said. “They just don’t have the money to have adequate testing to make sure everybody returning to campus after spring break doesn’t have COVID-19.”
The PCR test can cost up to $100, meaning a large public university would have to spend millions to test students, faculty and staff each semester.
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Is it legal for schools to ask families about personal travel because of COVID-19 concerns?
“As long as these rules aren’t discriminatory or don’t violate some other law out there that regulates how schools work, they have that right to discretion,” said Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University.
But it’s important for schools to create rules based on explicit risk behavior criteria and not solely on a destination. “It’s not going to Florida that puts you at a greater risk,” Burris said. “It’s going to Florida and engaging in unsafe COVID behavior” such as hanging out with crowds on the beach and not wearing a mask.
Last year’s spring break season occurred as the coronavirus pandemic started picking up. Schools didn’t punish students for breaking COVID-19 guidelines because they had shut down or gone virtual.
However, once students starting slowly returning to campuses for the fall semester, schools enforced COVID-19 protocols.
Syracuse University suspended 23 freshmen on Aug. 20, 2020, after identifying them in a video that surfaced on social media showing dozens of students gathering on the campus.
Northeastern University announced the dismissal of 11 first-year students on Sept. 4, 2020, after they were found gathering in one room at a Westin Hotel less than one mile from its Boston campus.
“The broad message here is that schools definitely have the authority to mandate sensible precautions and restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID in the school,” Burris said. “But in doing so, they should be judicious and should be very clear about the rationale for each requirement or restriction.”
Erin Richards contributed to this report.