DURHAM — Following pressure from students, the University System of New Hampshire has extended the deadline to sign an informed consent agreement, a document some students are refusing to sign. As the new deadline approaches, students still say their questions about the form remain unanswered.
Students and legal experts have criticized the agreement, claiming the form acts as a liability waiver that could absolve the university of legal fault if a student contracts COVID-19 during a return to campus. The divide rests on the wording in the agreement, which asks students to “assume the risks associated with being at the University of New Hampshire including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
Under legal definition, an assumption of risk can prevent a plaintiff from seeking damages based on the notion that they understood the inherent dangers. Lisa Thorne, a spokesperson for the University System of New Hampshire, said the form is being misunderstood, though she declined to answer how the school system is defining “assume the risk.”
“Some individuals may mistakenly have interpreted the informed consent document as a liability waiver,” said Thorne in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon. “In fact, the informed consent agreement is intended to provide transparency to students about the risks and expectations for them relative to returning to campus.”
Joshua Marshall, a first-year law student at the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law in Concord, is among those who will not sign the waiver. “There are just too many unanswered questions,” he said.
One of the main reasons he wanted an extended deadline is so he could listen to the board of trustee’s meeting scheduled for this Friday, during which they were slated to discuss “whether the institutions are headed on the path to be fully prepared to open in August,” according to notes from a meeting in early July.
However, the meeting was moved to Aug. 4, four days after students are expected to sign the form.
Marshall said this puts students in the same position they were in a week ago, in which they were asked to sign an agreement before they know if it is safe to return to campus.
He still is not sure what happens if he doesn’t sign the form. He said he reached out to administrators to answer the question, but still hasn’t received a clear response. He said he is going to assume not signing is equivalent to answering “no,” which would prohibit him from being on campus during the fall semester.
Thorne on Wednesday indicated that those students who do not sign the form will not be able to return for the fall semester. The University System of New Hampshire has more than 30,000 students.
Taking classes online has been academically challenging for Marshall, so he said this wasn’t an easy decision. Especially because law school classes are usually graded on a curve, choosing not to sign could take a toll on his grades.
Still, he said he is lucky – he doesn’t have an in-person job on campus or lab classes he’s required to take. Some of his friends, afraid they might lose their jobs or fall behind in class work, have signed the waiver even though they don’t feel comfortable with the language.
The University of New Hampshire held a town hall-style meeting over Zoom on July 23 to answer questions about the agreement. However, Marshall said the Zoom call was disappointing. He said administrators answered only prepared questions, most of which the students already knew the answers to.
Unsatisfied with the town hall, students took it upon themselves to pose their own questions about the reopening.
In a six-page document, students listed 122 questions on topics like housing, exiting and entering buildings, testing, and university communication. Other students filled in answers where they could in blue text, careful to note the source of each piece of information.
All of the questions under the “informed consent agreement” remain unanswered. Students asked questions like “Given the necessity of lab courses for students ... how is signing the agreement voluntary?” and “How does acknowledging that ‘UNH cannot guarantee my health’ not constitute a waiver?”