Five Colleges want better masks, as three delay in-person return

  • University of Massachusetts students leave the Franklin Dining Commons on the Amherst campus on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 30, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2022 5:28:43 PM
Modified: 1/14/2022 5:27:50 PM

AMHERST — As the University of Massachusetts recommends students, faculty and staff wear more effective masks to start the spring semester, Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges are delaying in-person classes due to the rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant.

In a weekly letter from Ann Becker and Jeffrey Hescock, the co-directors of the Public Health Promotion Center at UMass write that face-covering requirements are being updated to protect the health of in-person teaching, learning and research activities for the spring semester.

“Everyone should use a higher-grade mask, such as KN95, KF94, or N95, or double-mask,” they wrote in the Thursday message to the campus community. “Cloth masks are not effective in limiting the spread of omicron and should only be used in double masking, with a close-fitting surgical mask underneath.”

The latest COVID-19 dashboard, with data released Thursday, shows that 377 positive cases were identified at the UMass campus lab, for a 7.56% positivity rate out of 4,987 tests. Though the cases were an increase from the 360 tallied the previous week, the positivity rate was down from 13.21%, based on 2,725 tests.

With the spread of illness at one of its highest points since the pandemic began, UMass provided sobering and sad news to the community that it had learned a current employee recently “died as the result of COVID-19.”

“This is the first time that an active employee has died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic,” Becker and Hescock wrote. “Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his family, friends and campus colleagues.”

Meanwhile, aside from Hampshire College, remote learning will be one of the tools used at the other Five Colleges to keep infections in check.

At Smith, President Kathleen McCartney and members of her cabinet announced this week that the first week of classes, starting Jan. 24, will be conducted remotely.

“We are expecting to begin the spring semester with a higher number of cases than we’ve seen over the past two years,” McCartney and her vice presidents wrote, adding that many of these cases should present people who are vaccinated with mild or no symptoms.

Like UMass, Smith’s mask policy states that single-layer cloth face coverings are no longer sufficient. Instead, the college strongly encourages surgical or KN95 or KF94 masks. Both surgical masks and KN95 masks are available at the campus testing center.

Smith is also spreading out students’ return to campus, increasing testing from twice a week to three times a week through Jan. 30, and going back to color-coded operating modes based on the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Amherst College delayed the start of its spring semester by five days, with College President Biddy Martin announcing the first day of classes as Feb. 7, rather than Groundhog Day. The first week of instruction will be offered remotely, with in-person classes resuming Feb. 14.

“I am grateful to all of you for your forbearance as we, along with every other institution across the country, adjust our approach to the changing trajectory of the pandemic as necessary,” Martin wrote.

KN95 masks will be required in all indoor spaces at Amherst College, except private personal offices and dorm rooms when the door is closed.

Students are also being prohibited from heading out to restaurants and bars until Feb. 18, and faculty and staff are being “strongly discouraged” from eating in restaurants and bars over that same time frame.

Mount Holyoke is shifting to remote teaching and learning for the first two weeks of classes, with in-person classes commencing Feb. 7. At the same time, the college is requesting its students, faculty and staff wear face coverings consisting of three or more layers. It cites KN95 or KF94 masks as being preferred, but also mentions three-layer disposable masks and a disposable mask worn under a cloth mask.

President Sonya Stephens praised the college’s health team for its advice. “The safety and well-being of the entire community is at the heart of their recommendations, and I thank them for their commitment,” Stephens wrote.

While Hampshire is not delaying classes or doing remote instruction, like the other colleges it is promoting better masks and more frequent testing, along with limiting the dine-in options for students, suggesting that they take food to go.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com


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