The College of the Holy Cross has joined the growing ranks of higher education institutions that will be teaching students online this fall, reversing course on its initial plan to resume in-person classes.
Holy Cross announced Monday that it would no longer bring most students back to campus, and all classes would be remote, citing concerns over delays in coronavirus testing and stricter state guidelines for dining facilities and gatherings.
Like many colleges, Holy Cross had planned on using the Cambridge-based Broad Institute to conduct its coronavirus testing. In its initial announcement, the college said it would test all students upon their return to campus this fall and quarantine them until it’s clear they are virus-free.
But in his message to students and families Monday, the Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, president of Holy Cross, said the college was recently informed that results could potentially be delayed.
“Recently, we were notified that we should expect delays in testing results, especially during the critically important initial weeks of the semester,” Boroughs said.
Holy Cross officials said that in a conference call last week, the Broad Institute said that there was a possibility of some increased backlogs in late August and early September, when it expects the highest volume.
“Obviously, that’s when students are coming back, and it’s a crucial time to have rapid testing,” said John Hill II, a Holy Cross spokesman. “We continue to have confidence in the Broad Institute and are going to use them for students who do return or who have access to campus.”
Broad officials on Monday sought to assure the colleges and universities that its testing system would yield quick results, but they acknowledged there might be some hiccups in the initial days as institutions got used to the process.
“We are able to share results within 24 hours or less of receiving a test. We expect this turnaround time to continue even as anticipated volume increases throughout the fall,” said Lee McGuire, a spokesman for Broad.
McGuire said the Broad has been telling colleges that in the beginning of the academic year, as institutions get familiar with the testing system, the turnaround time may be closer to 24 hours, instead of less than a day.
“There can be logistical details that have to be ironed out — around how to package samples for optimal processing, for example,” McGuire said. “Samples that are incorrectly labeled or sub-optimally stored for transport can affect processing time on our end. . . . We expect no delays this fall.”
Wellesley College, which plans to bring about half of its student body back to campus this fall and is using the Broad to analyze test samples, said it remains certain that the institute will successfully deliver test results within the 24-hour time frame. Wellesley has also planned for any potential delays, said Casey Bayer, a spokeswoman.
“We believe our plans have us well prepared in the event that the Broad experiences slight delays in a turnaround time during this period, given this spike in demand for testing,” Bayer said in a statement.
Other institutions, including Boston University and Northeastern University, have developed their own laboratories to analyze test results.
But for Holy Cross officials, testing wasn’t the only area of concern. Local officials also recommended more restrictive guidelines for on-campus dining operations, Boroughs wrote.
“The restrictions and modifications that we would have to put in place to comply with the guidelines and to mitigate the spread of the virus on campus and in our local community would leave students with an extremely limited campus experience,” Boroughs wrote. ”As you can imagine, this has been an extremely difficult and heart-wrenching decision to make.”
Last week, several colleges, mostly in Western Massachusetts, announced that they too would reverse course and no longer planned to bring a significant number of students back to campus. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the state’s flagship public campus, was among the largest in the region to change its plans. Berklee College of Music, Regis College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College have also done so.
On Monday, UMass Lowell and UMass Dartmouth also announced plans to scale back their reopenings with only labs, studios, and clinical classes remaining in-person, and only a limited number of students allowed to live on campus. That means the University of Massachusetts system, with the exception of the medical campus, will be mostly online this fall.
The sudden changes, just weeks before classes are set to start, have frustrated many students and parents.
But leaders at the colleges have said they are growing increasingly worried about the spread of the coronavirus this summer, and that attempts to reopen schools in other parts of the country and world have resulted in increased infections.
“This was a difficult decision,” said Jacquie Moloney, the chancellor of UMass Lowell, in a message to her community. As recently as late last week, we remained optimistic we could keep moving toward a larger on-campus experience and I know this change is a disappointment for many of you. However, the health and safety of our university community members are our top priorities and must always tip the balance we sought between normalcy and risk mitigation.”
Massachusetts universities that have stuck to their plans are also facing pressure from faculty and neighbors to scale back.
On Monday, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville and Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn of Medford, in a joint letter to Tufts University president Anthony Monaco, urged him to further reduce the student population this fall on and off campus, and to reconsider its plan to reopen.
“We believe we are at another critical juncture in this ongoing and evolving crisis, where decisions that can markedly impact the transmission of this virus must be taken,” Curtatone and Lungo-Koehn wrote.
Tufts said that it has extensive plans in place to test its community, ensure that students are educated about wearing masks and keeping appropriate distances, and that the university plans to share information about its test results with state public health officials and its neighbors.
“Our comprehensive plan for reopening, which is based on the work and guidance of medical and scientific experts, protects the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and the residents of our host communities, and goes above and beyond all local, state and federal guidelines for reopening higher education,” said Patrick Collins, a Tufts spokesman.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.