Amherst town manager to UMass: Reopening plan comes with dangers 

  • Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst on June 30, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2020 2:51:52 PM

AMHERST — Reopening residence halls at the University of Massachusetts this fall, and not holding students living off campus to the same standards of behavior as those in dormitories, could create safety issues for Amherst residents during the pandemic, according to a letter Town Manager Paul Bockelman sent to UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy on Friday. 

“I believe these two decisions will endanger the health and, perhaps, lives of those who live in and around the town of Amherst,” Bockelman wrote to the chancellor.

Bockelman said in a phone interview Monday that, as the fall semester approaches, it has become “glaringly apparent” that the reopening plan, released in June, treats students differently based on whether they will be living on campus or off, even though there is no physical border between the town and campus.

“The idea that students would stay on campus and not go to parties off campus is just unrealistic,” Bockelman said.

Amherst had been prepared to have thousands of students living off campus, Bockelman said, and the reopening plan is an additional signal to students that they should physically return to the area.

Bockelman contends in his communication, which he said should not be seen as anti-student, that the university’s reopening plan could “fuel the conditions for a massive spread of COVID-19” and overwhelm the public health infrastructure, including at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, strain EMTs and paramedics and force public safety officers into potentially dangerous situations.

“I write to suggest steps you can take that may help mitigate this danger. But we have to be realistic: your decisions mean that we all face a tremendous uphill battle,” he wrote.

“Without normal university programming, students will have to produce their own college experiences, creating conditions that will likely result in a spike in COVID-19 cases in the town,” he added.

UMass in late June announced that students who had reserved on-campus housing would be able to return under strict public health guidelines, even though the majority of classes will be taught remotely.

As part of this reopening plan, students would be required to sign the UMass Amherst Community Agreement and follow various rules designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 infection. Those include physical distancing; wearing masks or face coverings; daily self-screening and reporting of possible COVID-19 symptoms; testing on demand; no visitors allowed in residence halls; limiting social contacts; participating in contact tracing; and staying within the immediate campus area except for work, including internships, or emergencies.

But all of these conditions apply only to students staying on campus, even though many will rent homes and apartments in the region.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said in an email Monday afternoon that the university is still looking at Bockelman’s communication.

“We are in the midst of reviewing the town manager’s letter, and will be following up with a response,” Blaguszewski said.

Bockelman’s letter makes four requests of the university to ensure there is consistency in the approach for students living at UMass and those who will be in rental units in Amherst and elsewhere.

First, Bockelman is seeking to have expectations for students living on campus and off campus be the same, including requiring all students to sign the community agreement, and for those in rentals to register their place of domicile.

“Failure to do so results in inconsistent action and confused messaging that inevitably magnifies the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bockelman wrote.  

Second, he is asking that the community agreement be enforced, and the student conduct code apply, for incidents involving students, including complaints from residents about large gatherings in which students don’t properly social distance.

Third, Bockelman is hoping the university will make testing and daily screenings for COVID-19, and contact tracing in the event of a confirmed case, available for all students, and also provide isolation and quarantine space even for those living off campus.

Fourth, Bockelman is asking Subbaswamy to establish a working group that would allow regular input from the town during the public health emergency.

Bockelman observes that town officials are concerned they were not consulted in the reopening plan and, even if having this partnership is not the traditional way of handling the matter, the unusual circumstances require it.

“I recognize that some of these requests will require new ways of doing business and may push all of us outside the comfort zone of our ordinary roles and relationships,” Bockelman wrote.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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