UMass forms group to monitor virus problems

  • UMass Amherst campus Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2020 6:36:17 PM

AMHERST — With less than a month before the fall semester starts at the University of Massachusetts, a panel is being formed to bring together university and town officials, along with local legislators, to plan for students arriving on campus and in the region.

The university announced Thursday the creation of what it calls a “high-level working group” that will provide a roadmap for dealing with problems, many centered on the anticipated increase in COVID-19 cases in the area, as the population swells before classes resume at UMass on Aug. 24.

“Our shared goal is to implement an extensive set of public health protocols and strategies, and I’m confident we will each do our part to protect our community,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement.

Subbaswamy added that the university is committed to collaborating to meet the challenges of the global pandemic.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, one of 17 individuals on the panel that began meeting Thursday, said this week that one of the responsibilities is to recognize that when the university reopens, no matter the precautions in place, students living on campus and off will contribute to an increase in coronavirus infections and possible spread in the community.

“We want to get the key players in the same room to discuss areas of mutual concern and discuss additional steps,” Bockelman said.

By sharing information in real time and working through important issues together, the working group can promote the health and safety of all residents, including college students, Bockelman said.

About 7,000 students are expected to live on the UMass campus this fall, about half the number who would live there in a normal year, while between 8,000 and 8,500 students live off campus. It’s unknown whether more students will be in off-campus housing because most students will be taking classes entirely remotely, rather than in person.

The announcement of the working group comes as a petition signed by over 1,000 area residents was delivered to Subbaswamy, as well as the presidents of Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges and the executive director of Five Colleges Inc., by Amherst resident Robin Jaffin.

That petition, which expressed alarm at the potential surge of COVID-19 cases, reads, in part, “We believe that this influx of students will increase the risk to our communities of the spread of the coronavirus ... And that the burden of increased exposure will fall on the communities to manage.”

Jaffin also wrote a letter calling on the chancellor and college presidents to have a unified system so people can report complaints about students’ behavior off campus and then track these complaints and  learn how they are being handled.

“This is not the time to return thousands of young adults — most of whom do have alternative options for remaining in their hometowns and states — to our community,” Jaffin wries. “We as a community have made consistent, serious and costly sacrifices to mitigate the spread of the virus within our town — because we care deeply about our neighbors and our families — and respect the science regardless of the political rhetoric.”

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, are both part of the working group, as well.

Comerford said in a statement that the 17 members will ensure that there is clear communication and information sharing.

“I’m looking forward to joining these conversations and to helping ensure that the commonwealth does everything it can to offer necessary support,” Comerford said.

Domb said she participated in the working group’s first meeting and feels reassured that it will provide a place for town officials to make their voices heard and offer input into planning for the start of the school year, and for her to hear what state-level actions might be needed.

“This is really an important venue for the community’s concerns to be identified and addressed,” Domb said.

In addition to Bockelman, the town is represented by Health Director Julie Federman; Town Council President Lynn Griesemer; Police Chief Scott Livingstone; Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson; and Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek.

The university representatives include Ann Becker, nurse at University Health Services; Nancy Buffone, the associate vice chancellor for University Relations; graduate student Derek Dunlea; Deputy Chancellor Steve Goodwin; Jeff Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management; Vice Chancellor for University Relations John Kennedy; Sally Linowski, associate dean of students for Off Campus Student Life and Community Engagement; Tony Maroulis, executive director of External Relations and University Events; and Student Government Association Vice President Seni Nkeng.

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


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