Amherst-based petition: College students should stay away during pandemic 

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2020 4:36:42 PM

AMHERST — As colleges prepare to welcome at least half of their students back to campus for the fall semester amid the pandemic, some area residents are demanding that school officials place stricter limits on who can live on campus, citing public health concerns. 

Locally, Amherst College, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College have announced that they will invite freshmen and sophomores back to campus for the fall semester, in addition to some other limited groups of students who need access to campus. The University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hampshire College have each invited an uncapped number of students back to campus, though the vast majority of teaching at UMass will take place remotely.

College officials say that strict social distancing protocols they plan to enact will help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when students return to campus. But not all local residents are convinced that these measures can adequately protect the area from another surge in virus cases.

Amherst resident Robin Jaffin is among those residents concerned about students returning to campus. Jaffin created a petition, “Do NOT Bring College Students Back To School and To Our Community This Fall,” addressed to college and community leaders, which had almost 500 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

Jaffin, a longtime Amherst resident, noted that unlike many states around the country that are still experiencing surging COVID-19 cases, Massachusetts has kept its case count relatively low due to adherence to social distancing guidelines. In the area, she has noticed “this community has worked very, very hard to mitigate the spread of the virus,” and “taken immense sacrifices to be able to ensure that.”

But when students return to the area, “I feel like all bets are off,” she said. 

Jaffin said she created the petition when she noticed others also had “immense concern” at the possibility of bringing thousands of students into the region without any guarantee that they will abide by their colleges’ social distancing standards.

She said she anticipates “a significant increase in risk associated with behavior that students historically have demonstrated,” such as gathering in large groups. 

Some students, like those in unsafe living situations or international students, should have the opportunity to return to campus even if their classes are all-remote, Jaffin said. But inviting back students who do not need to live on campus endangers the community, she said.

Amherst resident Monique Hillen shares some of Jaffin’s concerns, noting that virus cases continue to rise across the country and that some students will come to campus from areas currently experiencing outbreaks.

“We made a mistake not to take this pandemic seriously in several parts of the country, and the result is that America has record numbers of people infected and deaths,” Hillen wrote by email. “If the students come back they will re-introduce Covid-19 into our area,” and  “after 3 months of school they will take it back again to their own areas, which will create a double health hazard.”

Amid a lack of federal leadership, “the only reasonable approach is not to open too soon to avoid prolonged problems. If we stay put we will be more successful,” she added. “Plus, we deserve keeping our area almost Covid-19 free because together we took it seriously from the beginning.”

Alan Boulanger, an Amherst resident and analyst in the UMass Department of Math and Statistics, said he also has uncertainties about students returning to campus.

“It’s a challenge, and we don’t know enough about what’s going on with the virus to bring young people in close proximity with each other,” Boulanger said.

Students arriving from COVID-19 hot spots elsewhere in the country are one danger, Boulanger said. He is also concerned that students will ignore social distancing measures and continue to hold parties. 

Holding classes remotely is a step in the right direction, Boulanger said, but he is concerned that an influx of returning students may crowd the campus, which is  unusually empty at the moment, regardless of the mode of instruction.

“If you bring people in that have it,” he said, referring to the virus, “and you put them close together, there’s going to be a problem.”

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

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