By Amanda Waltz
PITTSBURGH — When Olivia Enders tried to log into her University of Pittsburgh email account, something odd happened. Instead of the usual login page, she was met with a statement containing two online forms: a Pitt Community Compact and a Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment.
She says she wanted to access an email containing a mandatory COVID-19 training video, but claims the acknowledgment blocked her from doing so.
“When I went to get my email, it flashed up,” says Enders, a student researcher and Ph.D. candidate in Pitt’s Urban Special Education scholars program.
The Pitt Community Compact, drawn up by student leadership, asked those returning to campus to promise they would adhere to COVID-19 safety measures, such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. While Enders says she was familiar with the compact and “happy to sign it,” it was the new tacked-on Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment form that gave her pause, as it contained language like, “I understand that I am assuming the risk that I may be exposed to or infected by COVID-19.”
Also included was a box students could click to accept the terms and submit. Enders says she felt uncomfortable agreeing, feeling that she was effectively signing a liability waiver that the university could use to prevent legal action should an outbreak of COVID-19 happen on campus.
While Enders found a way to back out of the form without agreeing and access her email, she says she knows others clicked the box thinking they had no other choice.
“It took me off guard because I know a lot of colleagues signed it thinking, ‘I need my email,’ or ‘I have a meeting, I need to get in, and I don’t know any other way around this,’” she says.
When she tweeted about the experience, she received dozens of replies and retweets from fellow Pitt students who, like her, felt the acknowledgment appeared more concerned with protecting the university than ensuring student safety. Many also felt the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment form was coercive, seemingly threatening to keep users from accessing emails should they not agree to the terms.
The incident demonstrates what college students nationwide are grappling with as they begin their fall semesters in the midst of a pandemic.
Over a dozen students ranging from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates like Enders reached out to Pittsburgh City Paper about their own concerns regarding Pitt’s approach to reopening. In addition to uneasiness about signing acknowledgment forms, some feel they have been overwhelmed by the ever-changing requirements the university has placed on its students, and some worry in-person teaching will cause a coronavirus outbreak.
Other college students in the area and across the country are experiencing similar situations. But local college officials deny they are making students sign liability forms, instead saying the forms are to help ensure students are properly informed about COVID protocols. Some students are insistent that the forms are basically liability waivers. The whole situation is just adding to the already intense start of the first full-semester under a global pandemic.
The situation at Point Park University
In addition to Pitt, KDKA reported in July that Point Park University required anyone moving into its residence halls to sign a Resident Student Waiver “acknowledging the risk of coronavirus.”
A Returning to Campus Guide available on the Point Park website currently reads, “For the 2020-21 academic year, before being permitted to move into a residence hall, each student needs to acknowledge the risks associated with COVID-19 by reading the Point Park University Resident Student Acknowledgement document. This acknowledgement verifies the student has read and understands the content of the document, and agrees with the terms in it. Each resident student must download the document at the link below, and read it before the student is permitted to move into a residence hall.”
A recent article from Inside Higher Ed reported similar complaints from students uneasy to sign liability waivers at Bates College in Maine and the University of New Hampshire.
Enders says that while Pitt’s acknowledgment form doesn’t explicitly say, “you’re waiving your right to sue,” the language is “really legal” and is “shifting accountability back to students instead of the university.”
“It’s not about safety protocols, it’s about liability protocols,” she says.
Pitt students have also had to face a myriad of new rules that includes random COVID-19 testing on students, which Enders says was announced after the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment form first appeared.
Enders and others believe the sheer number of responsibilities imposed on Pitt students are, in some cases, impossible or ill-defined, such as the self-imposed quarantine for those living in campus housing after they first move in.
“I think about being an 18 or 19-year-old [student] and how challenging that would be,” says Enders, recalling how, when she first came to Pitt as an undergraduate, she often had to make runs to Target to pick up essentials she had forgotten. “I can’t imagine students are going to have everything they need and not need to go out and do a strict shelter in place.”
This adds to the usual stress of acclimating to campus life, especially for freshmen or out-of-town students unfamiliar with the city.
Enders also believes young students eager to return to campus might not understand or even think to question the ramifications of agreeing to the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment.
Representatives from Pitt and Point Park both deny that students are signing liability waivers before returning to campus, instead claiming that the forms are only to ensure that students have seen all the COVID-19 safety measures before coming back.
“It’s not a waiver, it’s a recognition that we all have a role to play in making this semester safe and healthy,” says Micaela Corn, a communications specialist with Pitt’s Office of University Communications & Marketing.
Lou Corsaro, managing director of Point Park marketing and communications says, “We wanted students to understand an Acknowledgement of Risk if they were planning to return to campus this fall. There’s no additional documents, and we have not asked them to sign any liability waivers.”
Students disagree with those assessments
Like Enders, Ivy McCall, a second-year master’s student at Pitt’s School of Social Work, also encountered the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment while attempting to sign into her college email.
“I was actually worried that I had signed it accidentally because it didn’t pop up until I had signed out and signed back in again several times,” says McCall.
She adds that, despite what Pitt claims, the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment reads “like many legal waivers I have been asked to sign before.” She especially takes issue with the part of the statement that reads, “I recognize that the University cannot limit all potential vectors for COVID-19 infection.”
“It is clear to me that Pitt is putting profit over people in this regard,” says McCall.
Another student, a senior in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences who asked to remain anonymous, says she does not view the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment as a liability waiver but has issues with other aspects of Pitt’s COVID-19 preparation process.
“It was mentioned that we had to complete an online training session and sign some agreements, but I’ve had trouble finding and accessing the agreements,” says the student, adding that the video ended up containing “mostly information about what Pitt is doing to help with disinfecting and social distancing, and basically everything we’ve already been told over the past [five] months.”
Overall, she expressed frustration with how Pitt has communicated its approach to protecting students from infection.
“I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of emails throughout the summer from Pitt saying they’re working on getting us ready for coming back to campus in the fall, but none of them really specified any concrete plans or details on how it would work,” says the student. “It got to the point where I wasn’t exactly ignoring the emails, but I’d skim them, and most seemed like a lot of fluff.”
As someone who lives off-campus, she says much of the information does not pertain to her anyway, and still feels that Pitt is doing its best considering the unpredictability of the pandemic.
She adds that students fearing exposure to the virus on campus also have the option to take classes remotely. Madison Kerlan, a rising junior at Pitt majoring in English, says they plan on taking classes entirely remotely “regardless of the operating level of the university.”
“It’s just not worth returning to campus and endangering both myself and others,” says Kerlan.
Kerlan believes that, by seemingly blocking access to student portal information and email accounts, Pitt is “quite literally” coercing students into signing a liability waiver with the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment. “Although I had no interest in agreeing to the waiver, it seemed that it was the only way to proceed through the portal and access critically important information.”
They also feel that the university should go fully remote, as the expectations being placed on students are unrealistic.
“If you’ve ever met a college student, you’ll recognize that they won’t — and don’t — follow rules, pandemic or otherwise. So why would this be any different?” says Kerlan, adding that, leading up to the university’s late-August start date, they are already seeing “loads of students and families wandering around Oakland and Pitt’s campus mask-less.”
Their claims come as students are being tasked with doing self-imposed quarantines and self-monitoring, and are being asked to report if they or others are showing COVID-19 symptoms.
“Pitt simply won’t own up to the fact that it is creating a breeding ground for the virus by allowing said return and endangering the lives of students, faculty, staff, Pittsburghers, and far beyond,” says Kerlan, adding that they give it a month or two before Pitt will be in a “complete crisis.”
While Kerlan has major issues with Pitt’s COVD-19 response, they say they can not take the semester off for fear of losing their scholarship.
Economic concerns are a large motivation driving others to risk exposure, says Enders. While she admits she has the privilege of learning remotely, many of her peers simply have no other option than to be on campus.
“I have colleagues who have been on Pitt’s campus this whole time doing research,” says Enders, adding that some of them are working on projects that would lose funding if not completed in a certain time frame.
Universities have also widely stated that should an outbreak occur and disrupt classes, any paid tuition and other fees are nonrefundable.
Julie Daw, a third-year law student at Pitt, responded to the acknowledgment by drafting a petition asking Pitt to “oppose corporate liability waivers and to pledge to not require any such waivers from its students or workers.” So far, the petition has collected over 100 signatures.
The petition goes into more detail, explaining how The University of Pittsburgh is a member of the American Council on Education (ACE), an industry group “currently lobbying Congress to grant blanket immunity to institutions and corporations from all coronavirus-related lawsuits.”
This recalls how, in May, Carnegie Mellon University president, Dr. Farnam Jahanian attended a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, where questions were raised over whether or not the government would grant universities federal protection from lawsuits should an outbreak occur. Like Pitt, CMU is also affiliated with the ACE.
And, as the petition points out, the danger of an outbreak isn’t exclusive to students and faculty.
“Additionally, staff members like custodians and food service workers who make the University run will still be required to work on campus, even if the majority of instruction takes place remotely,” it reads, adding, “The risks associated with this will place a disproportionate burden on people of color. Across the country, over 30% of university and college workers are people of color, and so any reopening plan will risk the reinforcement of existing racial disparities.”
Daw points out that such action has resulted in other universities removing “assumption of risk” language from COVID-19 student forms, including at the University of Alabama, ensuring that schools still have a legal incentive to protect those on campus.
Enders expresses disappointment over Pitt choosing to tack the Return to Campus Student Acknowledgment on to the student-led Pitt Community Compact, which was focused on being proactive, using positive reinforcement, and creating a shared community. She says demands to remove or, at the very least, soften the language in the acknowledgment is not about tearing the university down, but ensuring the campus experience is safe and “more equitable for everyone.”
“I do really like Pitt, there are reasons I stayed here and continue to go here,” says Enders. “It’s just to push the university to be better.”
Amanda Waltz is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.