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College students asked to sign COVID-19 risk acknowledgement forms before returning to campus

Many people criticized these documents, claiming administrators are laying the groundwork of their litigation defense rather than focusing on student safety.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — As students prepare to return to colleges and universities across the country, they are being asked to sign COVID-19 agreements—in the form of compacts, pledges, or waivers—and accept the risks of catching the virus on campus.

Many people criticized these documents, claiming administrators are laying the groundwork of their litigation defense rather than focusing on student safety.

Penn State University faced backlash for the language in its previous agreement, titled “The Penn State COVID-19 Compact.”

“I assume any and all risk of exposure to COVID-19 that may result from attending Penn State, or participating in Penn State activities, and I acknowledge that exposure or infection may result in personal injury, illness, permanent disability, or death,” the document read.

Penn State officials modified that language in the Compact and the following language will be available as a second option to students online in the coming days: “Even with the mitigation steps taken by Penn State and my compliance with this Compact, I acknowledge that Penn State cannot prevent the risks of exposure to COVID-19 that may result from attending Penn State or participating in Penn State activities.”

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A Penn State University spokesperson told FOX43 news that the document is not a waiver and was never intended to be one.

“The Compact was to reinforce the University’s expectations and requirements, and to see that those requirements were raised to everyone’s attention. The language is being revised to clarify the purpose of the Compact,” Lisa Powers wrote in an email, senior director for news and media relations at Penn State University’s Office of Strategic Communications.

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David Hoffman, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said these COVID-19 documents appear to be more about changing behaviors than waiving rights.

“Where I teach at Penn [Law], there’s a compact as well which says very similarly you acknowledge this is a risky thing to do,” said Hoffman. “I don’t see that as actually being legally that meaningful and I see those documents mostly as trying to tell students please, for the love of God, be careful. Don’t host 50 people at your party with the windows closed.”

Ultimately, legal experts say a piece of paper cannot protect colleges and universities from gross negligence that causes a COVID-19 outbreak. However, students can face repercussions if they violate the agreements.

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Penn State’s COVID-19 Compact warns students that they may face disciplinary action if they do not follow public safety measures, like participating in contact tracing, mask-wearing and social distancing.

“They are just to express acknowledgment on the part of the student to abide by these things and to understand that the university is going to impose penalties, which they are able to do as long as they notify the students in advance. It’s kind of a due process type issue,” explained Nancy Kim, ProFlowers Distinguished Professor of Internet Studies and Professor of Law at California Western School of Law.

Kim warns against signing any contract-like document that appears alarming. She suggests reaching out to the school for clarification so that you understand exactly what you are signing and why.