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Union for UMass Amherst RAs calls the school’s reopening plan ‘suicidal’

The W. E. B. Du Bois Library gardens at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The W. E. B. Du Bois Library gardens at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

The union for resident assistants and peer mentors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst says the school has refused to address its safety concerns as the campus prepares for a fall reopening that the labor group on Monday called “suicidal.”

The school announced in June 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. Typically, another 8,000 UMass students rent apartments off-campus.

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The Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union said in a letter to Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy posted to medium.com that it had just “overwhelmingly voted, by a margin of 95 percent, to authorize our bargaining team to formally refuse to work in the dangerous conditions your reopening plan creates.”

“For weeks, we have bargained with Residential Life to achieve a safe reopening. Residential Life still refuses to allow students the option of working remotely, and refuses to provide hazard pay despite asking RAs and PMs to risk exposure to COVID every day,” the union said. “We haven’t even been promised adequate PPE or safe ventilation standards.”

The Daily Collegian, a student newspaper, previously reported on the union’s demands.

Union cochair James Cordero said Monday in an e-mail message to the Globe that his group doesn’t have “a final agreement on access to PPE, we have no guarantee that campus buildings will have HVAC ventilation, and hazard pay and remote work options have been outright refused.”

Cordero said the union’s “hopeful UMass will improve its position on these issues in the coming week. ... If we issued a call to refuse to return, we expect that UMass would have serious struggles with finding the staff to reopen campus.”

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In a statement, UMass Amherst said its labor relations staff “has been meeting regularly and will continue to meet with the RA and Peer Mentor union twice a week to discuss their concerns related to the fall 2020 semester.”

As with all employees working on campus this fall, the statement said, “the university is committed to creating a safe workplace for all, especially in these times of a public health crisis. We will not comment on specific bargaining proposals while active negotiations are underway.”

Earlier this month, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman warned in a sharply worded letter to Subbaswamy 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.

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.

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

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, Subbaswamy said in a recent interview.

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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 have said they’re 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.






Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.