UMass pivots on fall reopening plan, limits campus population

  • UMass campus, June 30, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2020 10:18:32 AM

AMHERST — With the continuing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the country, the University of Massachusetts is cutting the number of students who will be living on campus during the fall semester.

In an email to students, faculty and staff sent Thursday night, UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy announced that the campus population would be reduced due to “the worsening conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic nationally.”

“While we remain committed to our previously announced instructional plan, regrettably, we are reversing our previously announced offer to provide on-campus housing for students whose coursework is entirely remote,” Subbaswamy wrote.

The means that only students enrolled in essential classes, such as laboratory, studio and capstone courses, will be able to live on campus and have access to campus buildings and dining rooms.

When a reopening plan was announced two months ago, 7,000 students were expected to live on campus, or 50% to 60% of normal.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said Friday that only about 740 students will have dorm rooms. Only 600 or so students remained on campus following the mid-March shutdown of UMass.

Subbaswamy’s letter also came with an advisory for off-campus students to stay in their home communities rather than return to Amherst or surrounding cities and towns during the semester. In normal years, 8,000 to 8,500 students live off campus.

Of those off-campus students, about 2,400 will need in-person instruction, Blaguszewski said. 

The university expects to make exceptions for on-campus housing for some international students with specific visa requirements and other students in health care fields.

“These measures are intended to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 and to more effectively deploy our viral testing, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation resources,” Subbaswamy wrote, adding that UMass will be spending millions of dollars on this work.

Previously, the university had created a series of rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19. Those included students returning to campus being required to sign an agreement stating they will follow measures such as social and physical distancing; no visitors allowed in residence halls; daily self-screening and reporting of possible COVID-19 symptoms; limiting social contacts; testing on demand; contact tracing; and staying within the immediate campus area except for work, including internships, and emergencies.

But Subbaswamy noted that even with these safeguards in place, the possibility of a mid-semester shutdown from an outbreak loomed, and a recently formed working group with town and university officials began examining the earlier reopening plans.

“Our deliberations were also informed by the health and safety concerns expressed by our faculty and staff and by the citizens and leadership in our host community, Amherst,” Subbaswamy wrote.

The revised plan comes with likely impacts for both the larger community and the campus.

One is on the university’s finances and the local economy. 

Blaguszewski said UMass recognizes its latest decision will result in loss of revenue and that cuts could be needed.

“We’ve made no decision about staffing at this stage, but this has financial implications because fewer students will be living in residence halls,” Blaguszewski said.

It also means more uncertainty for Amherst businesses that depend on the university as a significant base for the local economy.

Amherst Business Improvement Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said that many students who won’t be coming to campus are freshmen. Other students may choose to remain in town.

“I think we will lose some of our in-town students and the landlords will feel that, but that those numbers will be small,” Gould said.

The bigger question, she said, is whether off-campus students who are taking remote classes only and therefore have no campus dining access will learn to cook, and whether there could be an increase in takeout orders and outdoor dining, as long as the weather cooperates.

But the potential for layoffs and furloughs at UMass could be detrimental to the economy.

John Page, marketing and membership manager for the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, released a statement that businesses so far have been able to innovate and adapt.

“With their innate ingenuity and grit, our entrepreneurs can endure but not without the community’s support,” Page said. “This news simply underscores the importance of supporting local to sustain the vitality of our local economy.”

With mostly remote instruction and the campus closed, how those living off-campus will act is also in question. Amherst Police and code enforcement officials have expressed concern about this, though the UMass agreement students are asked to sign remains in effect.

“We’re committed to working with the town to have students behave in a responsible manner,” Blaguszewski said.

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


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