Are anonymous covid reports necessary on college campuses?

This story was submitted to the University of Mary Washington Blue and Gray Press in spring 2021, but was not published due to necessary fact-checking unable to be completed before the last issue was finalized for the semester.

Throughout the 2020/2021 academic year, UMW students have been reported anonymously
for violating covid rules. Back in September, there was a report of an overnight guest from
another university staying at the UMW apartments. Another incident was cited by a parent
complaining that students were playing soccer without masks.

With all of the covid regulations which have become a part of daily life, covid concern forms
have also become available for those who wish to point out broken rules and ensure that the
UMW community is safe. The anonymous reports are the most mysterious and questionable
ways in which the university is enabling people to monitor each other during the pandemic. It
leaves some appreciating the ability to hold one another accountable, but also stirs up some
concern that this practice is an unnecessary breach of privacy.

Recently, a student journalist requested copies of the anonymous covid reports. 14 were given
back of the total 371 cases, both anonymous and not. There were a variety of concerns
reported and from multiple sources, including students and parents.

In many instances, groups of or individual students were reported for covid violations. The fall
of 2020 was a busy time of reporting incidents, both on and off campus. One report cited “a
group of about 8 boys who were standing next to each other and not wearing their masks
properly and some weren’t even wearing a mask”, in front of Randolph Hall.

Across campus, another concern was that “a bunch of students were gathered in the
conference room on the first floor of Willard, exceeding the limit of the number of people
allowed to be in that room by around 3 or 4 people. They were also all without masks and they
were eating and sharing food.”

“Two young women were walking down Campus Walk, closer than 6′ and neither was masked,”
another report stated. “They proceeded toward the University Center and I’m not sure where
they went after that as I entered the UC (I did not see them enter) There was also one young
man, sitting alone, on one of the benches outside Lee Hall, facing Ball Circle. No mask.”

More recently, on March 10, 2021, a “group of 5 students skateboarding without masks” on the
steps of the University Center were also reported anonymously. While many of these reports
seem casual and not particularly passionate, there are a few which express more serious
concerns of the way the University is handling the pandemic.

“Student was wearing a mask but not covering their nose, which makes the whole “mask” thing
pretty useless. A mask is defined legally as a covering that covers the mouth AND the nose, so
this was a violation. You might not be able to track down the specific student, but staff should
be more strict. Also saw a student wearing a plastic face shield but no mask. Face shields do not
work. Air simply flows around the plastic, infecting anyone shorter than the shield wearer. With
a cloth mask, air flows through the cotton, and some particulates are caught.”

“Kid kept pulling his mask down inside the Panera while talking with friends in clear view of the
Panera staff and they did NOTHING. Also a bunch of boys are sitting behind the stairs without
masks right now. Why are staff not enforcing masks?????”

Even while off campus, students are still subject to the same anonymous reporting.
“Multiple students reported to have been violating mask and social distancing while partying at
Brocks,” wrote an anonymous student. During a protest downtown, “UMW gear was spotted
on many individuals,” which led to yet another anonymous report for not wearing masks.

Given all of these various concerns, ranging from parents to students, on and off campus,
detailed and vague, the first question to be raised is how these concerns have been addressed
by the University.

According to the Office of Student Conduct and Responsibility (OSCAR), there is not much to be
done in response to the anonymous covid reports. This is primarily because if a student, parent
or staff member submits a concern but does not include their own name and contact
information, there is very little to be done in regards to a response. While there may be
specifically named individuals who have allegedly violated covid protocols, it would need to be
verified, which requires further communication between OSCAR and the person who submitted
the concern.

“With anonymous reports, we do not take formal conduct action against the student,” said Dr.
Ray Tuttle, director of OSCAR. “But we can request an informal Zoom meeting with the student
in which the report is discussed, or we can send them a letter reminding them to abide by
UMW’s COVID-19 policies.”

While there isn’t much that can be done to ensure public safety based on these anonymous
reports, they appear to have become popular among institutions of higher education over the
past year.

The University of Virginia also has a way to anonymously report concerns through a “covid-19
compliance” form. James Madison University has initiated the use of the “LiveSafe App”. This
enables students and faculty members to send a “tip” if an individual or group is not following
protocol. When possible, the university will follow up with whomever is reported to ensure the
safety measures are being met. There is an anonymous option for reporting through this app.
At UMW, some students believe that the anonymous reports are necessary and within the
university’s boundaries of ensuring public safety.

“The school has a right to know when people are acting out of line because their actions affect
the rest of us negatively,” said sophomore Communication and Digital Studies major Erin

However, if there is practically nothing to be done in response to these anonymous cases, the
situation begs the question about how useful these oddly specific reports truly are, and if they
are more of a waste rather than an effective use of time.

“These reports can be so easily abused,” said junior Political Science major Shawn
Fleetwood. “Assuming there’s no definitive proof, there’s no way for the university to confirm
the validity of any report, which opens up the door for people to continuously file false reports
against someone they have beef with. What would the university do then?”

There has been some discussion and speculation that knowing anyone can anonymously report
you for breaking covid protocols, students are inherently more cautious about their behavior to
avoid getting into trouble. However, it appears that many UMW students are not aware of
these reports, so this potentially positive impact of enhancing self-monitoring may also be

Sophomore Sociology major Megan Mercuro has not been personally influenced by the
reports. “Knowing that people are anonymously reporting individuals does not impact how I
behave on a normal day because I try the best that I can to follow the guidelines to protect

“If I were to get reported,” said freshman Nicholas Hurley. “I have no idea what the
ramifications would be so the idea of ‘being reported’ is not very threatening to me.”
Both Fleetwood and Hurley express concern about the larger community attempting to resolve
issues which occur between individuals.

“We can be respectful of others if they are more sensitive to the whole covid thing,” Hurley
said. “And if they have a problem with how I’m wearing my mask or whatever they can just talk
to me about it. I don’t think there is a need to get the University involved.”

Considering that UMW students are not even aware that these reports are circling around
them, leaving them with no more or less motivation to self-monitor, as well as the concerns for
the University being overly involved, the question remains: are the anonymous covid reports
worth the time and energy and are they truly benefitting the UMW community? Looking at the
types of incidents reported leaves one to wonder why the community is getting preoccupied
with pointing fingers while there is no real possibility for positive change with this
approach. The reports are a way to get too many people involved in what is simply not their
responsibility, such as parents who are trying to control covid protocols from a distance.

“My daughter mentioned that in the evenings, no one is wearing face masks. This seems
dangerous and I am wondering if there can be some way to enforce the mask wearing rules on
campus. Off campus too! Am concerned numbers will rise. Also, wondering if it would be
possible to test all students instead of random testing.”

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