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Northeastern, BU, UMass to shift to online classes in response to coronavirus

Students walked to the library on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Four major universities in Massachusetts announced Wednesday they were ending in-person classes and shifting to online or remote learning in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The University of Massachusetts system (75,000 students), Boston University (35,000 students), Northeastern University (22,000 students), and Boston College (15,000 students) all announced they planned to drastically curtail campus life in the coming days.

A number of other private colleges also announced the move to online coursework on Wednesday afternoon, including Wentworth Institute of Technology; Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Berklee College of Music; and Brandeis University.

The Massachusetts College of Art and Design is suspending campus activity from March 16 to March 22 to allow a deep cleaning of the campus, and to see if classes can be delivered through alternative methods, college leaders said.


The news follows a string of similar announcements in recent days, as Massachusetts colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Smith College have moved to online instruction and in many cases asked students, except those in extenuating circumstances, to vacate the dormitories.

University leaders have said that they are trying to reduce the number of people in close quarters on campus and thereby limit the potential spread of the coronavirus.

“Discontinuing in-person instruction is a difficult decision, as it interrupts an essential element of our learning community, the interactions that occur in our classrooms, laboratories, and studios,” BU President Bob Brown said in a message to the community. “However, our first priority must be to keep the members of our community as safe as possible.”

So far only one college student is known to have tested positive for the virus: a UMass Boston student who earlier this year had returned to Massachusetts from Wuhan, China. That student is recovering and has been isolated since the discovery of his illness, according to UMass system officials.


But on Wednesday, Tufts announced that one of its students is being tested for coronavirus and Harvard said two members of its community were also undergoing tests for the illness. Neither university offered any details about the circumstances that prompted the tests.

Despite the limited number of cases, university presidents said precautions were necessary.

Most institutions, including the University of Massachusetts system, Boston University and Berklee, are asking students not to return to campus after spring break. Northeastern University did not ask students to vacate their dorms, arguing that the institution is committed to “maintaining continuity of campus life” for those who stay.

All five campuses of the state’s public university system will offer classes online or via teleconferencing software to limit student gatherings and interactions through at least April 3.

“The prudent thing is go to a virtual situation,” said Martin T. Meehan, president of the UMass system.

Students at the system’s Lowell and Dartmouth campuses are currently on spring break and will be told not to return to the campus, Meehan said. Virtual classes will begin for Lowell next week, while the Dartmouth campus is extending spring break for another week and will begin remote classes on March 23.

The system’s flagship campus in Amherst and the Boston location are going on spring break next week, and online classes will begin for them the week after. UMass Medical School in Worcester will begin online instruction later this week, but students who work in local hospitals will likely continue to do so, Meehan said.


Meehan said the university system will reevaluate its decision on April 3 and also determine whether students will be given any refund for room and board costs.

“In a perfect world, we’d have all our students back on April 3,” he said.

Boston College plans to suspend in-person classes after Wednesday, and asked students to return home by Sunday. Some students, including those from abroad, can request permission to remain on campus, the college announced. BC will move to online instruction March 19.

BU is leaving its dorms and dining halls open for students who remain and will review the situation again on April 13, according to the university.

At Brandeis, which has 5,800 students, all in-person classes will end on March 20, and undergraduate and graduate classes will move online after spring break. The university asked that all undergraduate living on campus not return after March 25, although some exceptions will be allowed.

Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun announced the changes in classroom plans in an letter to the community Wednesday. Online classes begin Thursday, he said.

“As we move to online instruction, we are not asking students in Northeastern residence halls to move out," Aoun wrote.

Students may elect to leave, he said.

Aoun added, "We are seeking to preserve the essence of a Northeastern education—including current co-op placements—while also taking prudent steps to reduce the risk of infection within our community.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her @fernandesglobe.