UMass sequesters students amid COVID surge

  • A solitary person walks across the common of the Northeast Residential Area at the University of Massachusetts on Monday morning. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A solitary person walks past the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday morning, Feb. 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A solitary person walks past the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday morning, Feb. 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A solitary person walks past the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday morning, Feb. 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A solitary person walks past the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday morning, Feb. 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 100 people - students, faculty and staff - at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wait in a steadily moving line at the Mullins Center for their appointments to be tested for COVID-19 on Monday morning, Feb. 8, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 100 people — students, faculty and staff — at the University of Massachusetts wait in a steadily moving line at the Mullins Center for their appointments to be tested for COVID-19 on Monday morning. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/8/2021 10:38:07 AM

AMHERST — All University of Massachusetts students, including the 5,000 living on campus and an estimated 8,000 at off-campus residences in the area, will be self-sequestering for the next two weeks due to a surge in COVID-19 cases that reached 448 as of Monday.

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, in a letter to the campus sent Sunday noting the 298 positive tests returned from Feb. 2 to 4, advised that no in-person classes will be held and students shouldn’t leave their dorm rooms or homes except to get meals, undergo twice-weekly COVID testing, or go to medical appointments. They should also not travel from campus or outside the surrounding area.

Subbaswamy wrote that the self-sequestration mandate, as the campus moves to a high-risk category, may seem like a drastic step, but administrators had little choice as contact tracing data indicates that transmission of the virus is prevalent among some undergraduate students who are not following social distancing protocols or wearing face coverings in public.

“By acting aggressively now, we are confident we can contain this surge and more quickly return to normal operations, including a resumption of in-person classes and organized student activities,” Subbaswamy wrote. “Our extensive planning process anticipated the possibility of this occurrence, and we are prepared to take swift and decisive action to protect our community.”

Moving to the high-risk category was made after positive tests from the campus’s symptomatic and asymptomatic testing sites and in consultation with the state’s Department of Public Health. The university had 448 active cases as of Monday, adding 82 more cases Friday and Saturday.

There will be consequences for those who disregard the notice, according to Subbaswamy: “Failure to comply with these directives is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct and will result in disciplinary action, which may include removal from residence halls and/or suspension.”

“Let this moment be a stark reminder to any of you who may have been cavalier about COVID-19 that your individual behavior has a profound impact on everyone in your community,” Subbaswamy wrote.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said Monday that limiting circulation of students is the best way to bring the positivity rates down. Though the vast majority of students are acting responsibly, some are not.

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 4, 183 behavioral notices were issued to students, with 82 students receiving referrals under the conduct policy, most for failing to abide by COVID-19 rules, Blaguszewski said.

“We have not identified any superspreader events,” Blaguszewski said.

Moving the campus to high-risk, though, comes after the Daily Collegian reported that a fraternity may have hosted large parties in which guests were not following practices to stem COVID-19 on back-to-back nights in late January. The report cited video documentation and several anonymous sources.

Blaguszewski said the university is aware of reports that fraternities and sororities have had gatherings that would not be in compliance with COVID-19 rules and that UMass officials follow up on every complaint. Fraternities and sororities, like other off-campus housing, fall under the jurisdiction of Amherst Police.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said the Amherst Police Department has not been notified about any recent large parties at a fraternity or sorority, but has followed specific guidelines issued by the town’s health department when encountering them during the fall semester.

These include issuing fines if more people than allowed are at a home and reminding guests about the need to wear masks and keep a social distance.

“We were made aware of one video going around the students’ social media sites of a frat party, but we were able to determine it was video from a couple years ago,” Livingstone said.

Extensive testing

At Monday night’s Town Council meeting, several UMass officials provided more details about the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, with the cases among students almost evenly divided between those living on and off campus.

John Kennedy, vice chancellor for university relations, said UMass did extensive testing in January as students returned and had a process for them to self-sequester to make sure COVID-19 was not coming to Amherst with them. The increase in positive cases didn’t happen until the first week of classes, he said.

The positive tests were under 1% during the student intake, but have risen to 2.46% among the 16,293 tests since Feb. 1, still lower than the 3.1% statewide average, said Jeff Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety.

Kennedy said the Collegian story is concerning, but getting evidence upon which UMass officials can act is a challenge because the story uses anonymous sources.

Still, Dean of Students Evelyn Ashley said an investigation is underway by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.

Emergency orders

Meantime, the impact of the growing number of COVID-19 cases is also affecting the larger community.

Restrictions on capacity and opening hours will continue for restaurants, gyms and other businesses in both Amherst and Hadley after health officials in both towns issued emergency orders.

Meanwhile, Sunderland, where numerous UMass students live off campus, is expected to decide at a special meeting Monday night whether to take the same steps, said Geoff Kravitz, town administrator.

Even though Gov. Charlie Baker is allowing indoor capacity at those businesses to rise from 25% to 40% and for them to stay open beyond 9:30 p.m., Amherst and Hadley businesses will have to follow more restrictive orders in place since last fall.

Both measures, approved Sunday afternoon, came after consultation with state public health officials and the decision by UMass to go to a high-risk designation for COVID-19 infection spread.

Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon, who also serves on the Hadley Board of Health, said in a statement that it was in the interest of the health of the communities that they not follow Baker’s decision.

“Never has it been more important to follow those key public health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands and maintaining social distance,” Dragon said.

The decision also was endorsed by Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Bockelman said.

Hadley’s Board of Health calls the governor’s decision to loosen restrictions premature and “due to the unique characteristics of the region that the town is located in, the new relaxed restrictions will not be sufficient to protect public health, safety and welfare in the town of Hadley.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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