The relationship between universities and their neighbors is notoriously complex. COVID-19 is about to make it worse. With schools across the country planning to bring students back to campuses as early as August, surrounding areas are likely to see sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases. Local governments, businesses, and individual residents need not be sitting ducks. They can, and should, sue now to prevent campus reopenings, or to require universities to implement safety measures that will protect surrounding communities.
Universities do not and cannot operate in a bubble. Students, faculty, and staff live off campus, use public transportation to get to and from campus, go grocery shopping, have families with children who go to school and spouses who work at area businesses. If a campus becomes a locus of COVID-19 infections, the disease can rapidly spread throughout an entire area. Knock-on effects include burdening local hospital capacity, endangering the health of medical personnel and other front-line workers, possibly precipitating economically damaging lockdowns, and exacerbating racial disparities in whom the pandemic strikes and how hard.
While faculty are flagging such problems for university administrators and in some cases pushing back against the reopenings, they are not the only ones who can take action now to avert these consequences. A wide range of individuals and organizations can and should take preemptive legal action, suing colleges on the grounds that reopened campuses threaten the public good. To bring these suits, parties have to show that they will suffer harms over and above those to the general welfare. Many individuals and organizations are situated to do this.
For example, a local chapter of the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers—the unions that organize K–12 teachers throughout the country—could file a claim on behalf of its members based on the anticipated extra burden on local teachers and their students should the university drive up infections as grade schools attempt to reopen as well. School boards and parents’ associations could join in such claims. Similarly, a hospital that serves the community could file a claim on the grounds that bringing students from all over the country to be in relatively close quarters is likely to lead to ICU bed overload.
By showing that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm if campuses reopen, vulnerable persons who live near universities, hospitals, service worker unions, and local governments—among others—should be able to obtain specific, anticipatory relief. Remedies could range from requirements to take specific precautionary measures, including reengineering campus buildings to minimize chances of infection spreading, to mandates that all or almost all instruction be conducted wholly online without reopening buildings.
Those who neighbor universities might be able to approach them informally first to seek commitments that the schools will take specific steps to prevent their campuses from becoming sources of disease. Hospitals and local governments might request upfront financial contributions to alleviate pandemic-related strains that campus reopenings will put on health care systems and other local infrastructure. If universities are not amenable to such overtures, then a formal legal proceeding can be brought.
Colleges and universities naturally first consider their own needs and interests. When it comes to COVID-19, it is more imperative than ever that they also attend to those off campus whom they affect so powerfully. Their neighbors have a right to such consideration. If it is not forthcoming, public nuisance law provides a legal tool for getting it.
It makes more sense for those likely to be sickened or otherwise harmed by university reopenings during this pandemic to pursue prophylactic legal action rather than await the harms and sue for damages later. By considering and formulating nuisance actions now, those who live and work near colleges can gain a voice in how these institutions conduct themselves this fall and for as long as COVID-19 poses substantial risks.