PHOTO/WENEI PHILIMON: Some UNR students are ready to toast the start of the semester with traditional campus parties.

The start of a university semester means parties; it’s like a law.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, where students returned to campus this week in the midst of a pandemic, that unwritten mandate is taking precedence over COVID-19 precautions.

“We went through this period where everything shut down for about five months and it seemed like everyone supported flattening the curve,” said Kevin Finkler, a UNR senior, who was surprised when he scrolled through Snapchat and saw his friends partying last weekend, days before the semester began Aug. 24. “But it seems like the moment we got back to campus, everyone forgot what we were trying to do.”

As universities reopen for fall semester across the U.S., city officials and colleges face the difficulties of policing students’ traditions of throwing parties during the first week of school. Some institutions have adopted a take-no-prisoners approach. Purdue University recently suspended 36 students for attending a campus party that violated social-distancing rules. Other universities have suspended classes and sent students home due to the spread of the virus, outbreaks that in some cases were traced to off-campus gatherings.

No policies, consequences for off-campus parties

UPDATE: After publication of this story, UNR officials on Sept. 31 noted that “as established by the university's Code of Conduct, the university is able to take action in off-campus incidents that “adversity and directly affects the health, safety, or property of the university community.” They wrote that “Students and student organizations who are found responsible for a violation of the Student Code of Conduct are exposed to the full range of sanctions proved in the code, including suspension, exclusion and loss of the recognition for student organization."

Students didn’t receive any specific communication about off-campus parties, but the Greek societies got a warning letter.

Romando Nash, the associate vice president for Student Life Services, wrote that: “Our goal is that you empower yourselves to do so in ways that encourage the safety and welfare of all of you. The beginning of the year parties and gatherings you are accustomed to having simply can’t happen, especially not in the early stages of our return.”

Other than the standard code of conduct, there have been no new policies instituted specifically covering pandemic precautions at off-campus gatherings. That’s not unusual; other universities also have avoided telling students what precautions they should be taking off campus. Even the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines for higher education institutions sidestep the issue.

Finkler, who is also president of Alpha Sigma Phi, a UNR fraternity. He said the frat houses and sororities are required to follow state and local mandates regulating the size of gatherings, social-distancing protocols and the wearing of face coverings. The individual houses will police the regulations and mete out consequences to those who aren’t following the rules, Finkler said.

Party scenes common on social media

Dominique Hall, president of the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno, said she has seen many people behave as if there is no pandemic, including members of fraternities and sororities.

“From what I have seen on social media, (there are) a lot of people throwing parties, attending ‘day-gers,’  which are day parties,” said Hall. “Many people are partying. They’re not social distancing, not wearing masks, sharing drinks and (they are) posting it on social media.”

Despite the uptick of COVID-19 cases in Nevada, some students continue to attend such parties even when it’s obvious there are no safety precautions in place. With traditional graduation ceremonies postponed, spring break vacations cancelled and sports seasons spiked, requiring college students to forgo parties on their own time may seem to some an expectation too far.

A recent survey of more than 20,000 students concluded that even in the pandemic, face-to-face classes are considered an essential part of the campus experience and that social events remain highly valued.

To not have them is to feel robbed of a big part of the college experience, some UNR students said.

Some students willing to trade safety for fun

Skylar Schuette, a UNR junior, recently attended off-campus parties. She said most gatherings hosted no more than 20 people, but one had 50 to 60 guests. The parties are usually casual affairs, she said, with her usual group of friends, so no one practices COVID-19 protocols. The larger soiree, though, was similar to the parties she used to attend before the pandemic. There was no social distancing, no masks and lots of people who didn’t know each other. she said.

“Because of COVID, everything has been taken away,” Schuette said. “Being young and being in college, I feel like I shouldn’t have to live in fear because of COVID.”

Alex Woodley, assistant director of neighborhood services for the City of Reno, said recent house parties in Reno weren’t limited to college students, but also included older adults. During the last three weeks, two of those gatherings jammed about 100 people into a single-family home. Code-enforcement officers are investigating the incidents with an eye to issuing citations to the property owner.

Washoe County District Health officials said house parties are a major concern in spreading the virus. They said nine people were infected by one person at a recent family gathering and one of the patients died.

Reno police to deploy ‘party car’ around UNR

Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick expects to see an increase of virus cases coinciding with the thousands of students returning to the university. On Aug. 27, Washoe County officials reported that the Reno Police Department will assign a designated patrol car – dubbed a “party car” — to cruise the city’s neighborhoods. The officers will focus on areas of the city’s jurisdiction around the UNR campus to “address any violations that present COVID-19 risks.” The report noted the patrol also will respond to any calls about “party-type disturbances throughout the city of Reno.”

Hall, ASUN president, said UNR isn’t doing enough to stop off-campus gatherings. She brought up the issue to UNR administrators during the summer after students expressed their concerns to her.

“It’s going to take that student push and student criticism for them to even think about doing anything,” Hall said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Sept. 31, after the receipt of new information from UNR. 

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