College students who want to step foot on campus this fall will have to first sign a form acknowledging they understand the dangers of COVID-19 and in some cases relinquish their right to take legal action if they get sick.
Along with the code of conduct manuals and reminders to wear masks, colleges across the country are also including unprecedented agreements, waivers, and risk acknowledgement forms in their back-to-school packets this year.
Higher education institutions say these documents are a way to address life during an extraordinary pandemic and ensure that students understand the public health risks of the coronavirus and take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.
But critics argue that even as colleges invite thousands of students back this fall and try to reassure families that their campuses are safe, the institutions are also trying to protect themselves if something goes wrong.
“The universities are trying to cloud their responsibilities,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Feldman has warned students against signing the waivers and argues that colleges are attempting to squelch potential negligence lawsuits and make any legal claims more difficult to win. “What the universities are saying is that students, faculty, and people in the community should bear the risk.”
The language of the waivers can vary — some are vague and others are explicit about what legal protections students are signing away. Many institutions said they are not specifically asking students to waive any legal rights.
At Bates College in Maine, students must sign an “acknowledgement of shared responsibility and risk” to return to campus and live in the dorms that reminds them that they are “assuming any and all risks that notwithstanding the college’s best effort to implement and require compliance with these prevention and mitigation measures.”
The state university system of New Hampshire has asked students coming to campus to sign an informed consent form. The system, which enrolls 32,000 students, plans to offer in-person classes at three of its institutions this fall and wants students to understand that it cannot guarantee they will not contract the coronavirus, officials there said.
And at Stonehill College, a private Catholic college west of Brockton, undergraduates must sign an enrollment waiver that specifically states students “agree not to hold Stonehill legally responsible if they are exposed to or contract COVID-19 unless it is the result of the College’s willful misconduct.” In the footnotes of the form in bold print, Stonehill reminds students that by signing off they are giving up certain legal rights.
Northeastern University, which has invited its more than 22,000 students to return to campus, is asking students to sign an agreement to wear masks, practice social distancing, and take coronavirus tests. Those consent agreements do not contain language about students taking on risk.
Boston University, the largest campus in the region, is asking students to sign off on a health commitment, agreeing to wear masks, report any symptoms, and abide by the school’s testing and quarantining requirements. BU is not requiring students to fill out risk or liability waiver forms or agreements, a spokeswoman said.
However, BU on Friday asked faculty and staff to sign off on a similar health agreement and those who fail to follow the rules could lose their jobs or be suspended from work. Graduate students and some faculty are protesting the penalties as too severe.
The forms don’t need to specifically waive legal rights to deter students and their families from holding the school responsible, Feldman said.
If universities wanted to be transparent and avoid confusion, they would explicitly state that these forms are meant to be a legal defense, Feldman said.
“The universities are trying to avoid having anybody question if they’re acting reasonably,” she said.
Bates officials said their risk acknowledgement forms do not ask students to waive any legal rights and while it doesn’t specifically say so, the text should be self-evident. Students and families with questions about the forms have opportunities to ask the college questions, Bates officials said.
“Because a pandemic is a shared public health problem, we need collective action by all members of the community to mitigate risk,” said Sean Findlen, a spokesman for Bates. “Our plan for the fall, including inviting students back for on-campus learning, has emphasized student choice. … That choice lies squarely with students and their families, depending on their personal circumstance and their own sense of whether they feel safe living in a campus setting.”
The forms have reminded some students of the potential risks and even deterred some from coming to campus over safety concerns. But for the most part, universities said, most students have signed and agreed to come.
The consent forms and waivers come as higher education lobbyists are pushing state and federal legislators for broader COVID-related liability protection as they reopen their campuses. Late last month, the American Council on Education on behalf of nearly 80 other higher education trade groups sent a letter to Congress asking for targeted and temporary liability protections to ward off “excessive and speculative lawsuits.”
That lobbying effort has made some students more skeptical of the individual school consent forms.
Ashley Kemker, 28, a graduate student in the University of New Hampshire’s fine arts program, still hasn’t signed her consent forms. She said the university initially gave students only a week in July to review and agree to the university’s statement. But after students raised concerns, the university decided to keep the online link open for students to sign through August.
The forms go too far, Kemker said, especially the acknowledgement that students “assume the risks associated with being at the University of New Hampshire including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
“I have no problems wearing a mask, I take no issue with constantly sanitizing,” Kemker said. “To me, they are showing a blatant disregard for students.”
Lisa Thorne, a spokeswoman for the university system of New Hampshire, said the informed consent forms are specifically not a liability waiver, and students aren’t giving up any legal rights to sue if they think that the public university system failed to protect them. The courts also generally require documents that shift liability be clearly outlined, Thorne said.
Students who sign “no” on the New Hampshire public university’s informed consent forms will not be able to come to campus.
“The university system could have included a legal liability waiver,” Thorne said in a statement, “but chose not to include any provisions that lessened the university system’s legal responsibilities.”
Thorne said instead the university system is trying to be transparent with students and their families that there are risks associated with being on campus in the midst of a pandemic.
The system could have done more if it wanted to ease student concerns, said Joshua Marshall, 24, a University of New Hampshire law student at the Franklin Pierce School of Law. For example, it could have removed the assumption of risk language and just asked students to follow proper public health rules, he said.
“If it’s just about informing us about the requirement to wear masks, I’d go ahead and sign it,” Marshall said. “It’s the other implications that are a problem.”