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UMass Amherst reopening plan draws sharp criticism from town officials, residents

Two people walked up a nearly empty North Pleasant Street in Amherst in April.
Two people walked up a nearly empty North Pleasant Street in Amherst in April.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

The expected return of 15,000 University of Massachusetts Amherst students to campus dormitories and nearby apartment complexes next month has alarmed neighboring residents and town officials, who fear the influx of young people will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

In a sharply worded letter to UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman warned that the flagship public university’s decision to hold most classes online but invite students to return to campus could be dangerous. The university failed to consider the public health risks posed by students living off-campus and the impact its reopening plans will have on a community that had boasted among the lowest coronavirus infection rates in Massachusetts, Bockelman wrote on July 10.

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The decisions “will endanger the health, and perhaps, the lives of those who live in and around the Town of Amherst,” Bockelman wrote. “Your decisions mean that we all face a tremendous uphill battle.”

Bockelman’s letter highlights growing tension between higher education institutions and their neighbors as the fall semester quickly approaches and thousands of students from all over the country descend on cities and towns that are trying to keep the pandemic in check.

UMass Amherst, the largest university in the western part of state, plays a vital role in the economy and culture of the region, but during the pandemic it also presents a major risk. Amherst is surrounded by other colleges, but they are significantly smaller. Nearby Amherst College plans to bring mostly freshmen and sophomores back to campus, about 1,250 students, this fall. Hampshire College, which has invited all students back, sits on 800 acres and expects to enroll about 600 students this fall.

The closed campus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The closed campus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

For many Amherst residents, the UMass Amherst fall plan is the most troubling, according to dozens of e-mails included in a recent Town Council agenda packet. The university announced last month that it would hold most classes remotely, but students could return to the dormitories if they abide by strict rules. This fall, the university expects it will house about half of the 13,000 students who typically live in the dorms, as others opt to stay home and learn. But typically, about 8,000 UMass students also rent apartments off-campus in the surrounding neighborhoods, and that number is likely to remain the same, town officials fear.

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“They are inviting a COVID disaster for the students and for people in the town,” a longtime North Amherst resident wrote to Bockelman.

“This decision is more Floridian than Amherstian,” another resident wrote about the UMass plans.

“I’m sure you have seen the scene outside the current student off-campus housing this summer where they’re congregating together outside playing beer pong,” a business owner wrote to Bockelman. “I realize that there are numerous economic implications if our local colleges and UMass flounder; however, my business will remain closed longer if the students cause a dangerous rise in Covid cases.”

University and town officials met Tuesday and are likely to gather again to firm up plans for reducing the spread of the virus when students return, Bockelman said.

Amherst officials want the university to increase coronavirus testing and monitoring of students, particularly the 8,000 who usually live off-campus.

Subbaswamy and UMass Amherst officials said the university is spending millions of dollars to ensure a safe fall semester.

“This will certainly test our community,” Subbaswamy said. But a vaccine for the coronavirus is unlikely to be available until sometime next year, and universities and communities must learn to adapt to this pandemic and can’t simply shut everything down, he said.

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“Simple paralysis is not the way to learn for the future,” Subbaswamy said.

When students return to the dorms, they will be immediately tested for the coronavirus. Students arriving from 42 states that remain coronavirus hot spots will have to be quarantined for two weeks, following state rules. Students living off-campus will have to be tested if they enter the university’s dining halls, gyms, laboratories, or studios, campus officials said.

There is no testing mandate for students who live off-campus and take all of their classes online. University officials said they are confident they will catch any outbreak, because off-campus students still use the UMass Amherst health center for their medical needs. Additionally, students off-campus and on-campus are likely to interact with each other, and university administrators said they expect that contact tracing and the weekly testing of on-campus students should prevent any spread before it gets out of hand.

Still, some of the plans are in flux because the university isn’t sure how many students will show up this fall. The Amherst campus usually enrolls more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students, but expects about half that population to be living in the dorms and surrounding area this fall.

The university traditionally doesn’t keep extensive track of its off-campus students, but this year is requiring those who live in local apartments and rental units to register their addresses. The university also plans to do more outreach to off-campus students and their landlords to limit large gatherings and parties, UMass officials said.

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But town officials say they are uneasy that the university is more focused on the students living in UMass dormitories than those living in apartments in Amherst.

If an off-campus student tests positive for the coronavirus, the university currently recommends that the student self-quarantine, which can be difficult in small apartments shared with multiple roommates, town officials said. The university has also suggested that off-campus students who are infected be prepared to return to their family home.

The university is providing isolation rooms for on-campus students.

Amherst town officials say similar precautions should be taken for coronavirus-positive, off-campus students.

Amherst is also considering additional measures, such as mask requirements for certain areas of town. Grocery stores may be urged to allow for senior shopping hours in the morning and student hours in the evening.

“For the sake of the economy, we welcome students back, for the sake of the academic community, we welcome students back,” said Lynn Griesemer, president of the Amherst Town Council and a retired employee of the UMass system. “As we face the fall, we see the potential for a predicted spike. We can help contain it; it’s anyone’s guess if we can meet the ideal of staying where we are now.”

Like UMass Amherst, many colleges and universities have put extensive plans in place to keep students and neighbors safe this fall, said Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor who studies decision making and risk-assessment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Whether those rules will be followed consistently, or young people will get fatigued by constantly having to wear masks and keep their distance from their friends and peers, is unclear, Jacobson said.

That many of these students are likely to be asymptomatic could tempt them to break the rules, endangering the more vulnerable people they come in contact with when taking public transportation or going shopping, he said.

“Everybody is kind of waiting for the tsunami of young people to show up and nobody knows what is going to happen,” he said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.