Area colleges prepare for students’ return

  • University of Massachusetts campus GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The Grecourt Gates of Smith College on Elm Street in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Johnson Chapel at Amherst College GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Students walk to and from the Mount Holyoke College Blanchard Campus Center on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The sign at the entrance of Hampshire College in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/17/2021 9:18:51 PM

As the start of spring semester draws closer, over 9,000 students are expected to return to campus after a fall semester that was mostly remote for many.

Campuses that operated on a remote basis in the fall, such as Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, are welcoming a general student population back to campus for the first time this academic year, while Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which offered housing to a limited number of students, are upping their capacity — in UMass’ case, by around 4,500 students. Hampshire College, which invited all students back to campus in the fall, will remain largely unchanged.

While COVID-19 cases were at a relative lull as students returned to campus in late summer, the virus has since surged around the state and the country, stoking some anxiety that thousands of incoming students could intensify an already worrying pandemic landscape.

College officials have laid out social distancing measures for students to follow in an attempt to limit further spread of the virus, with plans ranging from standard measures such as requiring face masks and regular testing, to more intense approaches, like limiting students to a geographic “bubble” around campus.

Here’s what to expect from each of the Five Colleges as students arrive back on campus beginning later this month.


UMass is welcoming back 5,600 students or so to live on campus for the spring semester, including most first-year students, said UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. Though well short of the 14,000 who normally call dormitories home, it is well above the 1,100 on campus in the fall. The university is expecting the off-campus population will remain about the same as in the fall, or between 7,000 and 8,000 students.

With more students on campus also comes more in-person classes, as well as the interim pandemic policy, a series of rules they need to follow to stay safe, such as complying with quarantine requirements associated with out-of-state travel and restrictions to visitors on campus. This policy replaces the Community Agreement.

At residence halls, fully staffed with resident assistants, students will not be able to have guests or enter dorms other than their own. Students will be encouraged to organize outdoor activities as weather permits and form mini-pods for socializing and activities, Blaguszewski said.

The university doesn’t bar people from campus but advises them to stay away to promote safety, and students are being asked to limit their travel off campus as much as possible.

Students, returning in a phased-in period from Jan. 25 to Jan. 31, will initially report to the Public Health Promotion Center for a required COVID-19 test, and will be required to be tested again on the fourth day. If both tests are negative, they will be allowed to attend in-person classes, research activities and campus activities. On-campus students will also pick up their room keys at the center. Then, students will be required to be tested twice a week at the center.

No vaccines are available yet. “Once the state determines its plan for mass vaccination, UMass stands ready to assist in that effort,” Blaguszewski said.

Amherst College

At Amherst College, where the start of the spring semester has been pushed back to Feb. 15, a larger number of students are expected on campus than the 900 in the fall semester, but planning is still fluid and depends on many factors, said spokeswoman Caroline Hanna.

The factors that will determine the increase to about 1,200 students include the trajectory of the virus, progress with vaccinations, and various state and federal restrictions and guidance that may still be instituted, she said.

First-years and sophomores who made up the majority of fall on-campus students, with juniors and seniors, as well as incoming and returning transfers and students with home circumstances not conducive to learning, are expected to make up the majority of students on campus in the spring. Students who applied to be on a waitlist, primarily sophomores, are also invited back.

Only about 50 students are currently on campus, all of whom applied for and received permission to remain on campus for reasons such as home circumstances impeding their academic work and some international students who couldn’t travel home, Hanna said. A January term was offered to students, who could take one class for full credit over four weeks of remote instruction.

Hanna said all protocols and procedures in place in the fall remain, including keeping the campus closed to the general public and prohibiting students from leaving campus except with permission from Student Affairs and an agreement on how the travel will occur. Students must follow rules in their dorms, including wearing masks at all times when not in their individual rooms.

“We will, again, try to create a ‘bubble’ on campus and will continue testing students three times a week and on-campus personnel twice a week,” Hanna said.

The college is planning to facilitate vaccine administration once it has access to it.

Smith College

The school is planning to have between 1,100 and 1,200 students on campus in the spring, Stacey Schmeidel, a Smith College spokesperson, wrote in an email. Classes are scheduled to start Feb. 15.

“Students returning to campus will do so in phases, starting three-four weeks before classes begin, so that we can test everyone on arrival, quarantine or isolate as needed, and provide orientation for new students,” Schmeidel wrote.

In the school’s fall semester, about 100 students were on campus, according to Schmeidel.

This upcoming semester, students on campus and those who live off campus and are approved will be tested for COVID-19 twice a week, according to information on Smith’s website. All employees on campus will be tested as well, and those with “customer service-facing interaction,” like those who work in the dining halls, will be tested three times a week.

Some rules on campus depend on which of the three ”operating modes” the school is in. If in the least restrictive “green” mode, most classes of up to 30 people will be held in person, and in the two more restrictive modes they will be remote.

“The operating mode will be determined by pandemic conditions on our campus, in the city of Northampton and in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Smith’s website reads. “The college will move between modes as necessary.”

In the least restrictive mode, students are not allowed to travel more than 10 miles from campus, but if the college moves into a more restrictive mode, students would be able to go one mile from campus for work or essential items only, or in the tightest mode, students would be asked to mostly stay in their rooms. In any mode, students can’t participate in any social gatherings off campus.

If in the “green” mode, two on-campus students can visit a friend’s dorm, but if a more restrictive mode is adopted, no visits will be allowed, according to the website.

Spaces including libraries, the art museum, and outdoor athletic faculties like the track are closed to the public.

Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke College expects to host just under 800 students on campus this spring semester, according to a spokeswoman, and students will return by Jan. 18. The college typically enrolls around 2,190 undergraduates.

Like Smith College, Mount Holyoke College operated remotely in the fall, with very limited exceptions for students in extenuating circumstances. By late November, Mount Holyoke had recorded four COVID-19 cases among its on-campus population.

In the spring, returning students must stay within a 10-mile radius of campus, cannot host guests and must adhere to other social distancing measures such as wearing a face mask and twice-weekly COVID-19 testing.

The college did not have any updates on vaccination policies or how the COVID-19 vaccine could affect the spring semester planning, according to the college spokeswoman.

The on-campus experience will be “vastly different,” college officials have warned, but students can expect opportunities for some in-person, small group activities, and will have some access to fitness facilities, recreational activities and virtual social events. Most classes will likely resume on a remote basis, with instructors deciding whether the course should be held remotely or in-person. For classes that meet in-person, instructors must ensure that students who opt to learn remotely are able to complete all coursework.

Hampshire College

Hampshire College plans to welcome around 450 students back on campus this spring semester out of the 500-plus who are enrolled. This number is “very similar” to the amount of students who were on campus in the fall, according to Chief Advancement Officer Jennifer Chrisler.

Students are set to return between Jan. 29 and Jan. 30.

Per state guidelines, all residential students must provide documentation of having received a flu vaccine. The college will continue to follow state vaccination guidelines as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, Chrisler said.

College officials don’t anticipate the COVID-19 vaccine will have any dramatic effects on the college’s spring semester plan, according to Chrisler, “given the slow rollout of the vaccine to date.”

“Masking, social distancing, hand washing, regular testing and contact tracing continue to be our primary focus as we move into the spring semester,” she added.

The college documented six confirmed COVID-19 cases during the fall semester.

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