The University of Massachusetts Amherst announced Thursday night that students were no longer invited to return to campus if they had only online classes, a significant change to its fall plans aimed at drastically reducing the population in the dormitories and surrounding town as coronavirus infections rise.
The public university system’s flagship campus is the latest and largest higher education institution in Massachusetts to roll back its reopening plans. Classes are scheduled to start on Aug. 24, and many families were preparing to travel to Amherst and move students in. Many have signed leases off-campus.
“I realize that today’s announcement will cause disruption for many of you and is a major departure from the plan we released in June,” UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy wrote in a message to students and families. “Our intention at that time, with our plans to conduct most classes remotely while inviting all students back to campus, was to strike a balance between the immersive residential experience so important to our students’ development and the health and safety of the entire community in the Amherst area. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and detailed planning, the proliferation of the pandemic has left us with no choice but to pursue this more stringent approach.”
UMass Amherst is among the largest universities in New England with more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Of the 23,000 undergraduates, about 23 percent come from outside the state.
The university had planned to offer most of its classes, except for laboratory and studio-intensive courses, online. But it had invited students to live on-campus under strict rules. Under the original plan, UMass Amherst expected 7,000 students to move into campus dormitories and about 8,000 to live off-campus.
Amherst residents and town officials had criticized the plan, arguing that despite the university’s coronavirus testing measures, it would be hard to quell the spread of the virus especially off-campus. Student parties and gatherings around rental apartments would be hard to police, the university’s neighbors argued.
Under the new plan, students who live off-campus and don’t have any in-person classes will no longer have access to campus facilities or meal plans.
“All other students, whose courses do not require a physical presence on campus, should plan to engage in their studies remotely, from home,” Subbaswamy said. “In the interest of public health, we also strongly urge our off-campus students whose coursework is remote to refrain from returning to the Amherst area for the fall semester.”
UMass Amherst expects to now have only about 740 students living in the campus dormitories. About 2,400 students who have in-person classes will be living off-campus, university officials said.
Ultimately, UMass Amherst determined that the risk to a mid-semester close “is real,” and decided to take a more cautious approach to reopening, Subbaswamy said.
Nationwide, a growing number of colleges and universities are reversing their reopening plans and opting to go entirely online or bring many fewer students back to campus.
On Thursday, Johns Hopkins University announced that it would be entirely online this fall.
On Wednesday, Smith College in Northampton and Regis College in Weston both announced mostly remote classes.