KINGSTON – In response to a video that circulated on social media showing an unsanctioned large gathering taking place on campus, the University of Rhode Island (URI) announced that it would be implementing additional steps to ensure that students and all community members follow regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While colleges around the state were closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were allowed to reopen for the fall semester, though under strict statewide guidelines concerning social distancing, mask wearing and limited gatherings.
The video, which appeared to show dozens of students on campus in close vicinity to one another, was first posted on social media on Saturday, and later picked up by NBC 10 News. The gathering appears to violate COVID-19 related guidelines, such as social distancing requirements and group limitations.
On Sunday, URI issued a statement that said it was aware of the large gatherings taking place on its Kingston Campus, in local communities and at area beaches, adding that the gatherings run counter to the “tremendous efforts of so many to offer a dynamic in-person experience for our students this fall.” The following day, the university issued a subsequent announcement, explaining additional measures that were being put into place to ensure the safety of students and staff on campus.
“University leaders want all community members, and especially students, to know that violations of Rhode Island and university regulations that put the health and safety of the community at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic will not be tolerated,” URI said on Sunday. “The University has communicated clearly and frequently to students, faculty, staff and parents about the need for all members of the URI community to wear their masks on campus, avoid group gatherings, and observe physical distancing.”
The university said it scheduled several sanctioned activities, which were well attended and, most importantly, have met URI’s “standards for the preservation of health and safety.” However, unsanctioned gatherings like the one that took place on Saturday could “derail” on-campus life, as they have at other colleges around the country.
“We have seen large gatherings and parties at other campuses derail in-person classes at those schools,” URI said. “As a community, we do not want to see the enthusiasm of being able to come together to result in losing the opportunity of enjoying the semester together. But this could happen to URI if these gatherings lead to a substantial increase in COVID-19 cases.”
Students who ignore or challenge the COVID-19 guidelines could face serious sanctions, including suspension and immediate removal from campus, the university said.
Though the video appeared to show students flouting the state and university guidelines, URI said that the vast majority of students are following Rhode Island and URI standards around health and safety.
“Several students, many of them newly arrived first-year students, have communicated to us that they are worried about these gatherings and their potential to interrupt their first semester on our beautiful campus,” URI said. “We take their concerns seriously. So, we have strengthened the presence of URI Campus Police and staff from Student Affairs.”
The university also called on students to recommit themselves to the #rhodytogether pledge to “put forward their best effort to help protect each other against the spread of COVID-19.”
On Monday, the university issued a separate announcement about increased measures being taken to ensure the health of students and faculty on campus.
Dave Lavallee, URI’s assistant director of media relations, explained that the first announcement from the university was made in response to the video that appeared on social media, while the second was made in response to concerns raised about steps being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The second announcement stated that, during a sanctioned Orientation Week event on Sunday, there was an increased university police and public safety presence throughout the Kingston Campus, including the URI Police Bike Patrol, with cruisers and safety vehicles stationed strategically in key locations.
“For the evening of Sunday, Sept. 6, the university sponsored a highly successful O Week (Orientation Week) event at Meade Stadium,” the university said. “Over the course of the night, 750 students attended the event and enjoyed a DJ, games and other activities, all while wearing face coverings and abiding by physical distancing guidance.”
Additionally, starting at 10 p.m. on Sunday, leaders from URI’s Division of Student Affairs used a golf cart to monitor areas where students like to congregate, carrying disposable face coverings and sanitizing wipes with them.
“As they drove through campus, officials thanked the majority of students for wearing their masks,” the university said. “They asked those not wearing them or wearing them improperly to put them on correctly.”
Just off campus, at the Kingston Emporium, the URI team said it discovered about 30 students there. They were asked to space out and they complied, the university said.
The URI Student Affairs team also spent time on the Elephant Walk, a major campus pedestrian walk, where they found most students were wearing their face coverings, according to URI. The Student Affairs team finished around midnight, with no sanctions issued.
“There were a few groups, the largest made up of about 30 students, which were asked to space out,” URI said. “Everyone complied.”
Kathy Collins, vice president for Student Affairs, said that she was pleased with what she saw while monitoring both on and off campus activity.
“It was a beautiful night on the Kingston Campus, and students were glad that we were taking such a personal interest in their well-being and success,” Collins said. “They responded well to our message of, ‘Let’s do this, so we don’t have to send you home.’ They understood that we are all in this together and that we will succeed if we stay strong and united in our efforts.”
And on Monday, URI continued to increase its police and public safety presence.
Lavallee said that, along with Collins, URI President David Dooley and Dean of Students Dan Graney were in Narragansett on Monday, continuing to make sure students were following appropriate COVID-19 guidelines.
“As far as I know, that went really well too,” Lavallee said. “We just wanted to make sure our community partners are paying attention and working with the local authorities to make sure students act responsibly and do the right thing.”
“Overall, I think the response by university leadership, and in particular the students, has been really good,” he continued. “I think the students know what’s at stake: their continued participation on campus for this semester.”
While no citations were administered in connection with the unsanctioned gathering on Saturday night, Lavallee said students know that, if they are cited by a municipal police force for violating local ordinances, the university can also take action through its conduct process.
However, he said that, over the weekend, the university was focused on educational measures–though students could face penalties for further violations.
“Most of what we did [...] was kind of educational and reinforcing that we’re all in this together. If you cooperate and do the right thing, we’ll have a great semester together,” he said. “If you don’t, then there will be issues around us continuing and penalties.”