This Monday, every student received an email from The University of Alabama containing a link to COVID-19 training. What that email did not mention is that students must also sign a form in which, after laying out the risk of severe illness or death, the administration included half a sentence that readers could easily miss: “I voluntarily assume such risk.” None of the University’s communications have mentioned this document, let alone that signing it would be required in order to follow the administration’s plan for students to return to campus. It is abundantly apparent why they would bury this information: none of us should sign away our right to sue if the administration plays fast and loose with our lives.
We don’t yet know how coronavirus lawsuits will play themselves out. As such, it is unclear what legal weight the form will have. However, the UA System Chancellor Finis E. St. John IV participated in a call with the federal administration that was reported to involve lobbying for immunity against any coronavirus-related lawsuits. This would mean the administration could be as reckless as they want in bringing students back to campus and face zero consequences.
This idea seems to be at the heart of the acknowledgement form.
The problem, of course, is that the community will still bear the weight of the administration’s actions. The UA system has a massive presence in Alabama. With daily case counts setting multiple records recently and hospitals strained by the surge, a poorly planned return of tens of thousands of students to communal areas could massively ramp up the crisis across Alabama.
If the University knows it cannot be held accountable, it will be free to put its own profits over the fate of Alabamians. The ability to sue the University is important because it creates a strong incentive to protect those the administration is supposed to serve. The acknowledgement form could give the administration the ability to get any potential lawsuits dismissed by simply showing judges the form, which explicitly places all responsibility on the person signing it. This leaves the University to focus on how they can maximize returns even at the expense of students’ and employees’ lives, and it threatens the safety of the communities to which we all belong.
We know that this virus is deadly and highly contagious, and that the economic impacts Alabamians are feeling increase every day it goes uncontrolled. But it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how much we still do not know. We do not know how bad the long-term effects on the body will be (even mild cases have been reported to have serious long-term effects for some). We do not know how much further our healthcare system can be pushed before it breaks down completely. We do not know how many Alabamians will be dead before this is over. We do not know how the virus might uniquely affect our own bodies. We do not know how many of us will be unemployed or homeless on the other side of this. The University should bear responsibility if administrators make reckless choices in the face of a global pandemic. If they are more intent on shielding their pocketbooks than protecting us, we can push back by refusing to sign.
We cannot and should not accept a risk that no one yet understands.
Haley Czarnek is a rising second-year UA law student.