COVID-19 Community Court: Rice University's way of keeping virus from spreading on campus

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Rice University is keeping students in line when it comes to COVID-19 and stopping the spread. This semester before students could come back on campus, they had to sign something called the Culture of Care Agreement.

"That was a list of regulations and rules that were set up before the school year began that every student had to sign off on and agree to abide by," said student Melody Xiao.

If a student is caught violating that agreement, like not wearing a mask or not social distancing or even going to a dorm that's not yours, that student can be reported. The severe cases go to the Student Judicial Program and the others go to what's called COVID-19 Community Court, which is run by students. Xiao is one of the 11 judges on that court.

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"It maintains accountability that every student has to abide by," explained Xiao.

Xiao takes her job serious because she's experienced the ugliness of COVID-19 first hand after testing positive in September.

"Pretty much like every symptom on the CDC list. You could check each one off. I was sick with all of that and it was a period of about two and a half weeks where I was just flattened," said Xiao.

According to the university's dashboard, the campus has had 149 positive cases since the pandemic began. School officials tell ABC13 the majority of those people contracted the virus off campus. The head of the student judicial program, Emily Garza, said the COVID-19 Community Court is a big part the reason why Rice University has some of the lowest numbers in the country.

"It's really easy for administrators at Rice to wag fingers at students and try to tell them what they can and can't do, but as we've seen in the past that's not always super effective. When you're a student and you see your peers behaving in a certain way, promoting a certain positive message related to public health and protecting each other, students are more likely to understand that message coming from their peers," said Garza.

Once the cases are heard in COVID-19 court, university officials say the punishment is more educational than punitive, like watching an educational video on COVID-19 or participating in a COVID-19 educational project on campus.

Yes, college looks different these days, but the message at Rice [University], is accountability now, so things can get back to normal sooner than later.

"You can survive a semester or school year without your stereotypical college experience like partying, going out with your friends or studying in groups until 2 a.m. but not everyone who contracts COVID-19 is going to be able to survive that experience," said Xiao.

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