Northeastern University has dismissed 11 first-year students after they were caught violating social distancing rules, the school announced Friday, the latest and most aggressive attempt to prevent the pandemic from disrupting plans to return to Boston’s campuses this fall.
The students were caught at the Westin Hotel, which is being used as a temporary dormitory this semester, on Wednesday night without masks and not social distancing, according to university spokeswoman Renata Nyul.
The dismissed students will not be allowed to take courses from home this semester but will be permitted to return in the spring, Nyul said. They were part of a special one-semester program for freshmen that was prepaid and cost $36,500. That money will not be refunded.
The students were asked to move out immediately, be tested for COVID-19, enter quarantine if they test positive, and then leave. Their university housing payments will not be refunded, per university rules.
Northeastern is one of several large universities in Boston that have brought students back to campus this semester, amid strict guidelines that aim to prevent an outbreak of the virus like the ones that have shut down schools elsewhere in the country like the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Mimi Chapman, faculty chair at UNC and dean for doctoral education in the School of Social Work, said the Northeastern gathering sounds different than the large parties and gatherings that they contended with, many of which originated in fraternities and sororities.
“That feels a little extreme on the one hand,” she said of the dismissals. “On the other hand, if you are bringing students back, and if they really want to be on campus, it doesn’t take very much for a situation to start spiraling out of control,” she said.
Myron Cohen, an epidemiology professor at UNC directly involved in that campus’s response to the virus, said the most effective way to prevent outbreaks is by changing behavior, but that can be difficult among strong-headed 18-year-olds.
“We don’t have a biological tool, we only have behavior change, and we now know that students are an extremely vulnerable population. If you want to keep your campus open, how do you inspire behavior change?”
Last month, Northeastern sent stern letters to 115 freshmen and their parents after the students indicated on social media that they intended to attend parties this fall.
The return of students has troubled many neighbors who live near the schools and worry the students will put them at risk. Several city councilors have called on the schools to remain online this semester. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has said he is concerned about the return of students. He has urged students not to party and asked the schools to share with the city their plans for testing and safety protocols.
The students dismissed this week will have the right to contest their dismissal at an expedited hearing, according to Northeastern.
The 11 students were part of N.U.in, a special program at Northeastern that allows first-years to study abroad during their first semester of college. The program was modified to take place in Boston this year because of the pandemic.
There were 818 students enrolled in this program this year, all staying in two-person rooms at the Westin, less than a mile from the Northeastern campus. Northeastern is one of a handful of universities that rented out space in city hotels to put more space between students and decrease the likelihood of coronavirus outbreaks. University staff discovered the student gathering as they were making rounds in the hotel.
The university said students in this program were notified on multiple occasions over the past week that they must practice social distancing, wear masks, and avoid crowds. They were required to acknowledge that they reviewed the program handbook, which included these rules, the school said. Northeastern has barred guests from student rooms this semester.
The students were also notified in an Aug. 28 letter from Madeleine Estabrook, senior vice chancellor for student affairs, that informed them that they would be suspended if they host or attend an unsafe gathering.
“Cooperation and compliance with public health guidelines is absolutely essential. Those people who do not follow the guidelines ... are putting everyone else at risk,” Estabrook said in a news release from the school.
Trickling in and out of the entrance of the Westin on Friday afternoon, students said they were less surprised by the fact that there were rules violations than by the swiftness with which they occurred — within a day or two of many students moving into the hotel.
Most said they agreed with the severity of the punishment, noting that it will take universal adherence to the safety guidelines to ensure the semester goes on as planned. Students signed several forms saying they understood the policies, students said.
“The university was very clear what they expected,” added Kayla McCann, a freshman studying nursing.
The university held a virtual town hall Friday afternoon to discuss the incident, students said. They said the swift action sent a strong message.
“I was upset because it’s just really stupid to go around and still have these social gatherings. Those kinds of things are just going to ruin everything for everyone else,” said Darren Ng, a first-year from New York City studying mechanical engineering.
Dugan Arnett of the Globe staff contributed to this report.