By Jan Wolfe and Daphne Psaledakis
(Reuters) – Some U.S. college students are doing the once-improbable: blowing the whistle on classmates who break rules aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
At the University of Missouri, one senior is posting photos and videos on a “University of Misery” Twitter account that shows students gathered in large groups at pools, outside bars and other places – few of them wearing masks.
The university has a form on its website where violations of the school’s COVID-19 guidelines can be anonymously reported, but posting on Twitter “adds a different level of accountability,” said the student.
“When it’s up there publicly and people are retweeting it, and the university’s getting tagged over and over – then they have to reply,” said the student, who sometimes posts videos and photos of non-compliance sent by other students and asked for anonymity to avoid backlash.
Christian Basi, spokesman for the University of Missouri, which has about 30,000 students, said there has been good compliance on campus during daytime hours but problems arise once students leave campus.
“Where we’re seeing our issues have been off campus, when individuals go home to their private residences,” Basi said.
The University of Missouri on Tuesday said in a statement that it had expelled two students and suspended three following “flagrant violations” of the school’s coronavirus-related rules.
The county where the school is located saw a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in August and early September, according to data on the city of Columbia’s website.
To avoid shaming individuals, the student who runs the University of Misery account has sent content that shows smaller groups of people violating COVID-19 guidelines to the vice chancellor for student affairs rather than posting it online.
Still, the student has faced pushback from other students.
In one instance, the student said they heard from a sorority within an hour of posting a video of some of its members lined up outside of a bar, many of them not wearing masks.
“‘This needs to be deleted now. We’re dealing with this internally. This does not need to be up online,'” the student said the message read.
Some schools like the University of Miami are actually paying students to enforce COVID-19 rules.
At Miami, 75 “public health ambassadors” are making $10 an hour to walk around campus and make sure that people wear masks and socially distance. Serious infractions can be flagged to university administrators.
Austin Pert, an ambassador and Miami senior, said that people generally comply with his requests. But Pert acknowledged the program has limitations: most violations do not take place during the day on university grounds.
“If people want to flout the rules and put social distancing aside for a night to go party, it’s not happening on campus,” Pert said.
Critics say having in-person learning during a pandemic was a mistake to begin with.
“The notion that this population will comply with social distancing and masking requirements is just ludicrous,” said Ryan Craig, a higher education investor and consultant. “These are college students. They are going to do what they want to do.”
At Northeastern University in Boston, administrators came across an Instagram poll last month in which more than 100 incoming freshman indicated that they planned to party. After the student running the account voluntarily turned over the identities of respondents, they received a letter warning that partying could result in punishment up to expulsion, a university spokeswoman said.
Nearby Boston University has received about 125 anonymous tips about violations, ranging from partying to breaking quarantine. Most have come from students rather than faculty and staff, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore said.
Ed Kellerman, a BU senior, said he would not hesitate to anonymously report a party, calling it a matter of “life or death” for Boston residents near campus.
Kellerman said reporting parties also increases the odds of completing the academic year on campus.
“We’re all very pro-snitch right now,” Kellerman said. “No one wants to get sent home.”
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Dan Fastenberg; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Aurora Ellis)