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Smith, Regis are the latest Massachusetts colleges to move entirely online

Smith College announced Wednesday that its fall semester will be completely online.
Smith College announced Wednesday that its fall semester will be completely online.Globe photo Terri Cappucci

Citing the escalating spread of the coronavirus and failed attempts this summer to safely reopen schools and camps, Smith College and Regis College on Wednesday both pulled back their plans to bring students to campus this fall, joining an increasing number of higher education institutions to reverse course.

All Smith College students will learn remotely, president Kathleen McCartney wrote in a message to the college community.

“Given new scientific evidence, as well as recent and troubling trends nationally and in Massachusetts, I have come to the difficult conclusion that we should not bring students back to campus for the fall semester,” McCartney wrote.

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Smith, in Northampton, enrolls nearly 3,000 students, mostly women.

In early July, McCartney had invited first-year students, sophomores, and seniors graduating in January to live on or near campus. But the outlook for the pandemic has worsened since then, forcing the college to change course, she wrote.

Regis College, in Weston, said it was slowing the pace of its reopening and only a small number of upper-class students in laboratory-heavy, medical courses would be allowed to live on campus and take in-person classes to ensure they complete their work on time for graduation. No first-year students will be invited to campus this fall.

In recent weeks, colleges across the country have been reversing their plans to bring students back in the fall and teach in person.

Last week, George Washington University, Georgetown University, and American University, all in the Washington, D.C., area, announced they would be almost entirely online in the fall, backing away from previously announced plans to offer in-person classes.

Two weeks ago, three historically Black universities in the Atlanta area — Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College — said they would start the semester online, after previously saying they would bring some students back to campus and teach both in-person and online.

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Most higher education institutions in Massachusetts have stuck to their initial plans to bring students back to campus. Berklee College of Music, in Boston, has been among the exceptions, opting recently to teach exclusively online.

In Massachusetts, colleges and universities are in a challenging spot, said Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist.

It is unclear whether the state will have the rising infection rate under control in three or four weeks when most students are flying into Logan Airport or driving into the state to return to campus, said Scarpino, who has advocated that Massachusetts roll back its most recent reopenings so that it can decrease the spread of the virus and better understand why transmission is increasing.

“In terms of suggesting a rollback . . . it’s very clear to me that if we don’t do that we’ll be in a situation where the K-12 can’t reopen, same with colleges,” Scarpino said.

It’s unclear what is driving the increase in cases in Massachusetts, Scarpino said.

If it’s young people who are gathering at house parties and playing sports or doing activities that would be normal in any other time, then colleges and universities would know they are facing an uphill challenge when students return, Scarpino said.

But if it’s driven by relaxed attitudes about mask-wearing or social distancing, that requires a different public health approach, he said.

The lack of clear data or direction from state and local officials has made it difficult for universities make decisions about the fall, he said.

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“If we knew,” Scarpino said, “it would be clear what we need to do.”

It has also led to a patchwork of solutions.

On Wednesday, colleges and universities in the same Western Massachusetts consortium as Smith, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hampshire College and Amherst College, said they were sticking with their plans to bring students back.

McCartney said she eventually changed her mind because of recent news, including the wider spread of the virus in many parts of the country, including Massachusetts. Camps and schools, including the Israeli public school system’s inability to limit the spread of the virus, also factored into her decision, she said.

“I think everyone is making decisions with imperfect information,” McCartney said Wednesday. “You would be bringing students from all over the country . . . That is a risk factor for transmission.”

McCartney said Smith is still trying to determine the financial costs of its decision and whether it will have to make cuts to offset them.

Smith did not announce any tuition reduction, as have some colleges that have switched to entirely online teaching. Some schools have offered tuition discounts or grants to help them pay for more reliable technology to participate in online classes.

Smith had said earlier this summer that it will offer more financial aid and had rolled back a planned tuition increase.

Laura Krantz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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