Idea of repopulated UMass campus spurs hope, concerns

  • Steve Eagle talks about UMass students returning to campus. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Danielle Beason, a UMass student who lives off campus, talks about the return of students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donna-Rae Kenneally talks about the return of UMass students. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donna-Rae Kenneally talks about the return of UMass students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Danielle Beason, a UMass student who lives off campus, talks about the return of many more students in the spring semester. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Eagle talks about UMass students returning to campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/26/2020 8:20:05 PM

AMHERST — This fall, the normally bustling University of Massachusetts campus has been unusually quiet.

While 14,000 students would typically live on campus each year, the university slashed this number down to around 1,100 students due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for the spring semester, which begins Feb. 1, roughly 60% of the usual campus population is invited back, the university announced Friday. The cohorts of students allowed back on campus include those enrolled in mandatory in-person classes; students who depend on the university for housing and dining, such as international students, students who need specific academic accommodations and student athletes; and freshmen and entering transfer students.

On Monday, community members and students ranged from excited to anxious at the anticipated arrival of thousands of students to campus.

Danielle Beason, a freshman at UMass who has been studying remotely from her home in Amherst, said that she understands why students want to return to campus, but worries that those who flout the university’s public health protocols will cause an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Many students are “feeling the burnout” of remote learning and will benefit from living on campus, Beason said. But she has already heard of off-campus students defying the university’s protocols and expects that a larger on-campus population will lead to more parties and other high-risk activities.

“I just know for a fact, one of the things about the school is the social life,” Beason said. “That’s why people come to UMass.”

And even if only a small number of people don’t follow social distancing rules, the effects could be far-reaching, she added.

New cases tilt younger

This fear materialized last month when the university experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases after an initial cluster of off-campus students, some of whom had attended a party together, tested positive for COVID-19 in September. Thirty-three students were eventually identified as part of that cluster, but the campus’s overall number of COVID-19 cases climbed above 100. The vast majority of cases were among off-campus students, with 148 testing positive. One student living on campus tested positive, along with two faculty members and seven staff members. The university has recorded 158 confirmed positive cases as of Monday, though new case growth has slowed in recent weeks.

But COVID-19 cases remain on the rise statewide and locally, with several Hampshire County communities — including Amherst — designated by the state, as of Monday, as having the second-highest risk level for COVID-19 transmission.

And across the state, more young people are becoming infected: From Oct. 5-18, people under the age of 19 comprised the highest number of new cases of any age group, according to a weekly Massachusetts Department of Public Health report, followed by the 20-29 age group.

Beason said she would prefer that on-campus housing be limited to international students, those taking in-person classes and students who have unsafe or otherwise unsuitable home situations.

Beason’s suggested approach was similar to the plan UMass enacted for the fall: University officials limited campus housing to students who needed to take in-person classes or had extenuating circumstances, such as an unsafe home environment. The university had originally invited any student who had secured on-campus housing back to campus in the fall, with around 7,000 students taking up the offer, but reversed this decision after residents and town officials voiced serious concerns.

‘Good for business’

Beason does not plan to take up the university’s invitation back to campus in the spring, though she noted that she would have lived at home regardless of the pandemic. But “COVID definitely helps make that decision even more sound,” Beason said.

But others, such as Amherst resident Steve Eagle, welcomed the university’s announcement. Eagle recognized that bringing more students back to campus comes with risks, but believes that the decision is overall “more positive than negative.”

“It’s good for business, restaurants and people who work for the university,” Eagle said. “I wish this whole thing will go away and we’ll go back to normal, so this is moving in that direction … It just brings back a sense of normalcy.”

That sense of normalcy applies not just to residents, Eagle said, but also to students, who have missed out on a traditional college experience due to the pandemic.

Eagle said he does have concerns about rising cases in the area, and “the downside is the risk of increasing cases.” But overall, he said, the potential benefits outweigh the risk.

Donna-Rae Kenneally, who works for the town of Amherst and is the parent of a UMass student, also said that she sympathizes with students who were not able to return to campus and would like for them to be able to safely return.

As to whether this safe return is possible, Kenneally is optimistic due to resources such as a large campus and frequent testing. So far, Kenneally said that she had not felt that her son is unsafe on campus.

“Of course, I’m concerned,” Kenneally said, “But I’m hopeful.”

She added, “There’s initiative for the students to be careful, because they want to stay.”

Social limits

UMass officials say the university will continue to require that students adhere to protocols such as regular asymptomatic testing, “strict social distancing,” and limiting social groups to small “pods,” according to campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. The university currently conducts twice-weekly asymptomatic testing among students, and plans to implement additional asymptomatic testing in the spring, Blaguszewski said in an email.

In a letter to the campus community, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said Friday said that, “given the nature of the pandemic, the campus cannot operate at full capacity and adequately provide the virus testing, contact tracing, social distancing, and quarantine and isolation measures necessary while the pandemic continues.

“However, at 60% capacity, we are confident we can provide all of these vital services to our campus community while fulfilling our educational mission,” he continued, though he noted that the plan requires “strict adherence to updated and expanded protocols.”

But like Beason, not all are reassured by the university’s plan. Noelle McManus, a senior at UMass who is living off campus in Amherst, also has concerns with the decision and doesn’t believe that the university is prioritizing public health.

“To me, it feels like everything they’re doing they’re doing for the money, and not for the students’ well-being,” McManus said.

“Without a vaccine or any way to really combat COVID, that is a dangerous situation,” she added. Additionally, McManus said, the decision could influence others in the community to take precautions less seriously because people look to UMass as an authority.

McManus, who is from Long Island, said that witnessing the intense lockdowns and surging cases in the greater New York City area early in the pandemic also informed her perspective.

As a senior taking all remote classes, McManus is not included in the group invited back to campus. But she would not feel comfortable living on campus regardless, she said.

Iann McGeoch, an Amherst resident who works in the UMass information technology department, said that he has mixed emotions about the decision to bring more students back to campus.

McGeoch, who is set to take his second of two weeklong furloughs next week due to the pandemic’s financial impacts on the university, hopes the decision will allow the university to keep more of its employees working.

But “the kids who are here seem to be partying a lot,” he said, “so I’m kind of balancing those thoughts.”

Local and statewide COVID-19 increases have also factored into McGeoch’s concerns, he said, adding that UMass students have already contributed to this increase. While McGeoch works remotely, he is particularly concerned for employees who must work in-person.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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